Mexico’s Day of the Dead captured the world’s attention with its skulls and colours, but behind the facepaint is a touching celebration that embraces everything that’s good about life and death...
The candle flickered beside the grave. Maria, perched on a small plastic stall, rubbed her hands against the 3am chill and reached in her pocket for a small bottle of tequila. But she didn’t take a swift swig. Instead, she placed it delicately by the headstone and smiled serenely. “Rene loved tequila,” she said.
It was the middle of the night and I was in a cemetery in the blink-and- you-miss-it village of Arocutín, somewhere in the middle of rural Mexico. On almost any other night of the year, or any other cemetery in the world, this might look a little unusual, but not tonight. Not on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
It was 2 November and one of the world’s most magical, intriguing and heart-rending traditions was in full swing. The details of this festival may sound strange and spooky, even a little sinister, but the reality of Día de los Muertos is even more surreal.
Ancient legend dictates that it is the one time of the year when the dead can cross over and return to the land of the living. Families gather in graveyards across the country and erect altars in their homes known as ofrendas; these feature photos of the dearly departed as well as their favourite possessions as offerings.
It’s the one day of the year when we are all reunited,” beamed my local guide Benjamin Lopez Gomez.
The tradition dates back centuries but it has arguably only relatively recently made an impact on mainstream culture outside of its Mexican homeland, and that’s largely thanks to Hollywood. After UNESCO added it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, producers came knocking.
The opening scenes of the 2015 James Bond film Spectre featured an explosive Day of the Dead parade (sparking the Mexican government to arrange an official one in the capital), and then came the Disney effect. Its Oscar-winning tearjerker, Coco, told the story of a young Mexican boy who is transported to the land of the dead and reunited with his ancestors.
Almost overnight the world was gripped by this intriguing day dedicated to the afterlife. But to understand and experience the true spirit of Day of the Dead–no pun intended – I wanted to go back to where it all began.
Several places in Mexico claim Día de los Muertos as their own, and locals on the quiet shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, in the state of Michoacán, are no different. Whether that’s true or not, it remains a place that continues to cherish and practise the old ways.
Our day began in the colonial city of Morelia, famed for the 17th century cathedral flanking its leafy main square. Milling around the bandstand and criss-crossing the plaza were scores of teens in full Day of the Dead get-up: girls in flowing ball gowns, boys in smart suits and every face painted like a skeleton. No slit throats and gory Halloween masks here.
This emblematic look, typified in the iconic La Calavera Catrina first created by cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century, has become the symbol of the day.
The artist had originally given the Aztec Goddess the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, a makeover for a satirical cartoon that skewered the aristocratic ambitions of Mexico’s pre-revolution middle class, and over the years it became a visual shorthand for the colourful macabre of the festival, replicated in myriad dolls.
Benjamin was quick to warn that it was going to be a long day–and an even longer night.
“The festivities don’t start until after sunset, and families remain in the cemeteries until dawn.” Despite the temptation to have a cheeky siesta, we made the most of the free time to explore the city and its surroundings.
A short stroll away was the Conservatorio de las Rosas, a grand old convent that dates to 1743 and is now enjoying a fresh breath of life as a music college. Haunting vocals drifted from the rooms upstairs, settling on the neat hedges and trees that lined the courtyard below.
We popped into City Hall to admire the huge murals that depict the history of Morelia and Michoacán as well as Mexico, but truth be told, my mind was elsewhere. I kept checking the time, almost wishing the day away and longing for night to fall. But the perfect distraction was soon to come.
The road south-west took us from Morelia to Lake Pátzcuaro through quiet lowlands of dark green, along single-track railways lines and towards the hills and peaks in the near distance.
Before long, the vast shores of Pátzcuaro appeared before us. The harbour thronged with people laden with baskets stuffed with fruit and flowers – offerings for ofrendas – and we soon set out onto the water.
On the horizon loomed Janitzio, the most populated (about 2,000 people) of the lake’s islands. Our turquoise boat, named Xumu, made the crossing in good time and we barely noticed the darkening clouds overhead on account of the entertainment provided by four elderly men with skin like soft leather.
Armed with guitars, accordions and saxophones, they sang old songs from northern Mexico that are traditionally played when someone dies.
A strange atmosphere was building on the pier as we docked. People alighted in a flash and hurried away, vanishing into the warren of steep streets and narrow alleys that twisted and turned as they weaved upwards into the main town.
The heavens started to open, yet the plump raindrops somersaulting from above did little to dampen the anticipation in the air.
The cramped lanes suddenly opened up to reveal the local cemetery, overlooking the water from a lofty position. Families were hard at work. Some were cleaning the graves while others were busy placing hundreds of candles and sprinkling thousands of vibrant orange cempazuchitl flowers (or marigolds, to you and me).
“These things are very important,” explained Benjamin. “The candles and bright flowers help to guide the spirits back.” The deluge had made muddy work of the cemetery and slippery work of the streets, so we sheltered from the rain inside Cafe Erandeni. Friendly proprietor Liliana Hernandez took a break from frying small fish to serve us coffee. She laid the cups down with a smile and explained that she would soon be heading to the cemetery.
“Today reminds us that money and work are not the most important things in life,” she stated matter-of-factly. But this deeply sacred custom, so important to Mexicans across the country, faces an unexpected threat.
“We receive a lot of visitors who come to watch,” added Liliana. “Some are not very respectful and steal the drinks and fruit that we leave as offerings. We consider this robbery.”
Dusk was fast approaching and darkness had all but settled as we sailed back to shore. The night of the dead had finally come. This unique way of honouring the deceased is thought to be a mix of pre-Columbian practices and European ideologies brought over to Mexico by the Spanish, slowly mingling and evolving over the centuries.
We arrived at the dusty lakeside town of Santa Fe de la Laguna to a wedding-like atmosphere with music and food stalls in the main square, children playing football and large groups of tourists. It wasn’t the sombre setting I was expecting and there wasn’t a cemetery or headstone in sight.
“This village has a rather unusual tradition,” said Benjamin, sensing my bafflement.
“Here, the spirits of those who have died this year always go home instead of to the cemetery for their first Day of the Dead, and this year there have been three deaths in Santa Fe de la Laguna.”
We walked the short distance to the home of Dalia Fabian Luciano and through her open front door. She was sat beside the ofrenda dedicated to her young daughter, Gema, who had passed away just four months prior.
A photo of the beaming girl was placed at the head of an avalanche of fruit and flowers, sweet rolls, cans of Coca-Cola and a rocking chair – her favourite toy.
It felt wrong to be here, prying at a deeply personal and, presumably, painful moment. I shifted on the spot and tried to inch away but Dalia beckoned me closer.
I knelt beside her and she told me all about Gema, the games she played and the things she loved.
I added my own contribution to the ofrenda: a freshly baked iced bun. “I can feel her next to me,” she whispered.
It was then that I finally began to understand what this night was about: a connection.
The relaxed atmosphere of Santa Fe de la Laguna paled in comparison to the carnival-like spirit of nearby village Arocutín.
Outside the whitewashed church, bands played loudly, shots of warming tequila were free-flowing and a game of hockey, using a flaming wooden ball that hurtled through the air like a meteorite, was in full swing.
At the stroke of midnight, church bells added to the soundtrack. These loud chimes are to help stir the souls; the combination of notes is unique to Arocutín in another bid to guide the spirits back to the right place. It was time to meet the dead.
Stepping over the threshold and into the cemetery, my eyes widened at the sight of a million flickering candles. Generations sat huddled together against the chill, beside mounds of earth covered with small baskets filled with offerings.
I weaved my way silently between the headstones, acknowledging those I passed and pausing to admire the beautiful displays they had created, including the large wooden crosses adorned with delicate orange petals and planted upright in the ground. The mood was soulful and not, to my great surprise, remotely sombre or sad. I soon started to shake the feeling that my presence was in some way inappropriate or insensitive.
“Día de los Muertos is a celebration, my friend. It’s not a day to be sad,” explained Benjamin.
As the hours ticked up and the temperature dropped, plumes of smoke continued to rise high into the night sky. Back on ground level, two white butterflies flutter by grave. “We believe they are the spirits returning,” Benjamin added.
I criss-crossed the cemetery a hundred times. Maybe more.
And with every step, every conversation, every respectful bow of the head, I thought more and more about my own approach to death and how soothing, how healing, how poignant it would be to feel the presence of my beloved grandmother again. I could sense that very same feeling of comfort in those around me at that moment.
Among those I met were the family of Dene, whose photo – of a handsome twenty-something man – had been proudly displayed by his relatives.
“He was murdered four years ago,” said his sister. “Of course we feel pain, but this night also gives us comfort.” After an hour or so of talking, Maria reached towards the bananas within the small basket upon his grave. “Please take one. It’s a gift from Dene.”
On the other side of the cemetery, in the quietest of corners, was a simple burial mound adorned by a handful of flickering candles and minded by an elderly lady. She sat silently, staring at the black-and-white photo that revealed it to be the resting place of her son, Juan, who died 40 years ago.
“I’ve been doing this for four decades,” she said as her daughter joined her side. “It’s an important tradition to keep alive, but more important is to remember our relatives. We sit and share stories about Juan’s life.”
At 97-years-old, I wondered whether this annual vigil of reflection and remembrance had helped her to look at death differently. “Oh, I don’t fear death. I know I’ll be returning.”
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