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Celebrating the Day of the Dead Oaxacan Style

Repetitive chanting…solemn alternating with joyous song…excitement of children running around…all night vigils. Those were some observations of our visit to the cemetery of Xoxocotlan in Oaxaca that drew us in with a sense of complete disbelief and wonderment. All of our senses were alive that night as we very cautiously edged our way through the maze of hundreds of crowded tombstones, watching each step carefully along darkened and bumpy paths lit only by candles and the occasional camera flash from visitors. Even though we had to focus to not knock over anything or light ourselves on fire, we couldn’t help but notice the scent of the freshly planted flowers, incense and smoke and the sometimes muffled, sometimes animated voices of the families and visitors. Families were seated on the ground around the gravesites waiting out their overnight vigil with food, drinks, cigarettes, music and friends to keep them company. Our entry into the cemetery was no less than amazing. Lined with rows of colorful sand illustrations framed by candles and accompanied by a blanket of somber music being played up ahead, you had to stand in line waiting your turn to get a glimpse of each illustration, one by one, each one more awe-inspiring than the next, moving along by the slight, excited nudge of those around you all trying to see what’s next.

There was one particular family who had a more profound effect on me during our visit through the cemetery. Watching them live in the moment with joy instead of grief allowed me to reflect on the difference in attitudes surrounding death. There were around 15-20 people around this one particular grave, some of the younger family members standing up singing and/or playing musical instruments while others sat on the dirt enjoying themselves. It was obvious to me that they were having lots of fun, that death to them was an accepted part of their life, an extension of life and that they were celebrating it.

In the southern states of Mexico where indigenous people and their cultures thrive, the Day of the Dead is a very important syncretistic festival from October 31st – November 2nd which combines catholic and indigenous elements and is dedicated to the family and their deceased family members. A week or two in advance of the 3-day festival, the family begins preparing for the actual “return” of their loved ones to the gravesite. Preparations include cleaning the grave to refresh the dirt and flowers around it and planting new flowers, making loaves of beautifully decorated pan de muertos (a special sweet bread) and other foods that their loved one enjoyed while alive, molding chocolate into shapes and constructing the altar.

The making of an altar is a very personal thing, varying from one family to the next, built to display special items of remembrance of the deceased person in an attempt at guiding them back home once a year. No matter how modest the house is, everyone who follows this tradition makes some type of altar. An altar may be as plain as a table with the loved one’s photo and offerings such as chocolate, pan de muertos, flowers and candles or it may involve a more elaborate assemblage of several step-like platforms with all of these items plus miniature calaveras (skeleton figures made of different materials such as wood, clay, paper mache, sugar and wax), favorite food and drinks, fruit, candy skulls, and anything else that has special meaning to the deceased person and his/her family members. The structures themselves are covered in a cloth sheet before adding personal items, stalks of sugar cane are placed around the altar to form an arc above it and colorful papel picados (intricately cut tissue paper banners) are hung around the altars to create a more festive air. And no altar is complete without a display of bright gold marigold-type flowers called zempasuchil, which is a common sight around Oaxaca

By: Sue Lavene

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