Indigenous Culture, Oaxaca life

The Day of the Dead and the Celebration of Life in Oaxaca

By Kim Groves

I moved slowly in the deep shadows, trying to tread lightly and breathe softly. The candles warmed my ankles as I passed by the graves. There was a swell of tender yellow light all around me. The air was sweetly cold. Bright flowers glowed against the dark, roughly turned earth. Low murmurs mixed with distant music and quiet laughter. Silvery wisps came from the cups of hot atole that many clutched in their hands.

It was unbelievably intimate, there in the graveyard, but at the same time public. That is what fascinates me about this tradition of The Day of the Dead; the way the people of Mexico have taken what in many places has become the most private, or even unspeakable thing—death—and made it something vibrant, colourful, at times loud, and always revered.

I have never seen a graveyard as full of light and life as I have here in Oaxaca this week. Whole families sit together about the graves. Food and chatter pass between them easily. Some actually sleep, wrapped in great blankets, by the resting bones of their loved ones. At this special time, they are sending back the spirits of the visiting dead that have spent the past days among the living.

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It is believed that during the first days of the festival the spirits of the dead return to the houses that they lived in. This is why many households make beautiful altars in their homes to welcome them. In smaller towns, the families will sometimes leave a trail of marigolds from the grave to the house, so the dead can find their way home. On the last days, the family guides them back to the grave and sits alongside them as their relatives leave them once again.

This time of year has many layers of spirituality and significance in human conscious and history. It is the time when the days are getting shorter, and the night colder. It is traditionally a time to reap harvest and to prepare for winter. It is a time to reflect, and to give thanks. At this time we remember that we are part of a natural cycle; that we are earth and to earth we will return.

I love the way the senses are nurtured and indulged in this festival. I have eaten the most delicious meals this week. I have licked dripping mole negro from my fingers, and dipped sweet bread in the most scrumptious chocolate. It delights me that the people of Mexico continue to eat even in death. Altars of food have appeared in all corners. Little cups of mezcal glitter seemingly untouched, beside gushes of flowers, oranges and apples. It is believed that the dead return to sample their favourites from life. Be that sweets, bananas or cigarettes, it is all laid out for them in welcome. 

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It is said that the spirits of the dead do not return until a year has passed since their death. Around the more recent graves, the atmosphere is noticeably sadder and quieter. Cold little tears spring to my eyes when I see the photos of children, los angelitos, pinned to tombstones. I stood for a long time by one simple, small grave that someone had sprinkled sweets and chewing gum over. At other graves nearby, perhaps the ones at which the pain was less immediate, people seemed more inclined to be talking or even playing instruments. I could not always catch the words that were exchanged, but there was often a lot of quiet laughing. I imagined that they were telling stories to their lost loved ones.

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Traditionally, they share with those lost everything that is happening in the world of the living. It is a time to remember, and to share family news and gossip. I realised that is exactly what I would want of my family and friends after I am gone; just for them to sit down together and chat with me every now and then. This tradition is a safe keeping of memory and love.

This week in Oaxaca, I have learnt of the courage to look at death in a different way. It can be sad, and often comes with pain, but it is also joyful and full of sweet mystery. In acknowledging death, we celebrate what we value of life: family, friends, food, drink, music, laughter. Yellow and deep pink, are the colours I will always associate with these last few days; the colours of the flowers that bloom just a short time, as well as the deep rich colour of the earth that goes on and on.

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