How To Read This Blog

This blog follows the journey of Sarah Gibson and Digby Duncan, two Australian artists to Oaxaca in November 2013, to experience the Day of The Dead festival.

Two shot

To follow our journey please start at the first entry in the archives and read forwards.

D with CameraBlog  sarah desk dsc 558

Many thanks to the Obracadobra Artist Residency Program, Oaxaca and to Jane Robison, Amado and the staff at the Casa Colonial, Oaxaca.


The Casa Colonial, Oaxaca (see early post) where we stayed for our artist residency had a fantastic library.Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 9.31.35 AM


We can recommend these books on Day of the Dead and Mexico:

Artes de Mexico Dia de Muertos: Serenidad Ritual , Numero 62

Artes de Mexico Dia de Muertos: 11: Risa Y Calavera, Numero 67

Brandes, Stanley Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006

Carmichael, Elizabeth& Sayer, Chloe The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. London: British Museum Press, 1991

Chesnut, R. Andrew Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012

Lanyon, Anna Malinche’s Conquest. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999

Lomnitz, Claudio Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books, 2008

Norget, Kristin Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006


The Future

Boy painted up

Many are asking what will be the impact of the commercialization of Day of the Dead? While Day of the Dead involves very private rituals, there are public policy and nationalistic aspects to the celebrations. There are showcase altars everywhere, parades, sandpaintings, costume competitions and entertainment organised for cemeteries. There is profit to be made from Day of the Dead tours.

small girl at grave

Will the act of “marketing” “authentic Oaxacan culture be responsible for changing it?


Kristin Norgent sees two deeply intertwined futures “One of them will be polished, public, official, and increasingly rooted in tourism: a package ready for leisured consumption. The other will continue to be private and intimate: a communal devotion of various members of the popular classes…No doubt, one aspect of the celebration will serve to reinforce the other, perhaps even happily.”

Days of Death, Days of Life’  p. 263

Buckets, Brushes and Blooms

In Oaxaca city the time and day that people visit the cemeteries will vary from cemetery to cemetery and from town to the countryside.

We visit the Panteon General cemetery again on the morning of 2/11. We were told that today is a public holiday to enable families to visit their relatives and that this is the main Oaxacan celebration. We are confused how this fits with the idea of the dead returning to their homes the day before. Some people are cleaning and decorating the graves today whereas others have done this earlier. We saw only a few night vigils here last night when we came for Thorny’s party.

This morning is a colourful riot of plastic buckets, brooms, flowers and cheerful greetings. There is a sense of purpose and energy. We are struck by how the work of caring for the graves is shared between the generations. So much activity meant we didn’t feel so intrusive. People could engage with us directly and it was clear when people did not want to be filmed. Some family members came for a brief visit and we are told others will stay all day.


At midnight we travelled to, another nearby town, Atzumpa, where the cemetery is situated on a hill overlooking the small town. If we were confronted before, we were shocked by what awaited us here. It was sensory overload. We were assuaged by the smell of marigolds and copal incense, by the colours and candle-lights, by the chaos of the crowd and the very loud carousing band on the brightly lit stage.

There was a seething mass of people. We made our way between graves marked out by candles. There were no paths. We were worried about intruding on people’s private moments of reverie, physically falling onto a grave and our clothes going up in flames. A couple sat quietly beside a grave, often just a simple earth mound covered with flowers.  Family groups lit fires and cooked food. Older people sat a solitary vigil. Children bedded down for the night. Young people texted and tourists gawked.

We felt more intrusive here, perhaps because it felt more private and less structured. It was as if we were crossing a boundary, stepping into people’s personal space. This was a much poorer area, the graves were less demarcated, less concrete, less showy decorations, and we wondered whether more people were awaiting the return of loved ones.

We were aware of the struggle that communities like Atzumpa and Xoxocotlan have in interesting young people in maintaining the Day of the Dead traditions. The introduction of live music is part of the local government trying to engage and entertain. We hoped it wasn’t just for tourists. These Day of the Dead traditions are vigorously marketed to tourists like us as “authentic”. Tourism in turn brings economic benefit and there is value added to the maintenance of traditions.

Shopping for the Casa Altar

On our first morning we followed Jane’s group to a special Day of the Dead section of the local market to buy things for the Casa altar. In New York Halloween costume party outfits and decorations had been everywhere. They were also here amidst the stalls selling incense, chocolate, marigolds, festive breads, figurines and candles. This is something we will talk about later on.

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Back at the Casa we witnessed the building of the arch of marigolds and the decoration of the altar. Over the next days the altar acquired a tumbler of hot chocolate, tortillas, mescal, cigarettes. Members of the tour group had brought photographs and objects to add to the altar to personalize the altar for themselves. We wanted to do the same but had no photos but we lit candles. A path of merigold petals lead the way from the front door to the altar.

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Oaxaca- The Casa Colonial

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After a twelve hour trip from NYC we arrived at our residency at the Casa Colonial in Oaxaca to discover that the owner Jane Robinson was midway through leading a ‘Day of the Dead’ tour for a group of people from the US. Our residency project was to experience ‘Day of the Dead’ for ourselves and this blog is part of recording and thinking about this focus on death.

Jane and her husband Thorny had a long relationship with Mexico and developed the Casa as a B&B in a large colonial building set amongst peaceful gardens. They had a long association with many of the group members. Almost immediately we were invited to join in the activities of the group and to share Jane’s personal celebration for Thorny who had died five years ago. The staff of the Casa operate as a family and were also remembering Thorny and their long standing cook who had recently died as well as other people close to them. We will post more about this, our reactions to it and to other Day of the Dead experiences.