Day Of The Dead
By Greg Niemann
It was chilly as we approached the cemetery late that moonless night. Lights
from numerous candles and a few flashlights cast eerie illumination on the very
dark hillside reserved for the dead. The cemetery was buzzing with activity as the
living came to visit. People moved about, their shadows on the stone markers
dancing with life.
We entered and joined numerous small crowds who had crammed this rural
village cemetery in their celebration of death. We too had candles, and sweets, and
flowers to dispense among assorted headstones of the visitors’ loved ones. Those
who had departed mortality were now revered and venerated by their surviving
It was November 2, the Day of the Dead, (Dia de los Muertos), an important
holiday throughout Mexico where the living honor the departed.
Religious observances in Mexico are often a curious blend of Indian
tradition and symbolism, Spanish pomp, Roman Catholic ceremony and Mexican
bravado. This special brand of folk Catholicism is tolerantly accepted by the
prelates in Rome.
No holiday better exemplifies this unique composite of customs than
Mexico’s deep-rooted Dia de los Muertos. After Christmas and Easter (which are
also observed with some cultural blending), it is Mexico’s third most important
Celebrated over November 1 and 2, it combines Halloween (31st), All
Saints Day (1st), All Souls Day (2nd) and the Ancient Indian Day of the Dead.
Predating the arrival of the Spaniards, the ancient holiday was based around the
Indians’ beliefs that the dead returned once a year to be fed.
Even today, the holiday is a happy time to welcome the souls of the dead
who come back to visit. To greet them, the Mexican people flock to cemeteries
(panteόns) where headstones of deceased relatives have often been previously
cleaned by children and surviving relatives.
Food and offerings are laid out and graveside parties and picnics are held by
the loved ones of the deceased. Of course, after the spirits have enjoyed the food,
the family members are free to indulge.
In many homes throughout Mexico, family altars (ofrendas) are prepared and
favorite photos of the deceased are displayed, along with flowers (usually
marigolds), food, liquor and often a specially prepared Pan de los Muertos (bread).
Cakes and cookies in the shape of skulls and skeletons abound; papier-
mache skulls and cross bones along with spindly, black-and-white wooden
skeletons (calaveras) replace balloons as decorations. Most famous is the Calavera
Catrina which depicts a female skeleton dressed only in a dapper hat.
Many believers look for signs that the spirits did come: a few crumbs where
there weren’t any before, a glass that had tipped over, or a wind that had blown a
candle out. Those signs tend to reinforce the beliefs.
Celebrations throughout Mexico
We’ve attended several of these celebrations, in Baja and in mainland
Mexico. One recent year we were in Oaxaca where cemetery tours are even offered
to two cemeteries. Oaxaca, a charming colonial city in Southern Mexico, is
arguably the most famous Day of The Dead destination.
Along with the several crowded Oaxacan area cemeteries, numerous
processions, parades and festivities took place, in all the churches, in the plazas,
and throughout the streets. It also seemed every home or business had prepared an
elaborate ofrenda, adding colorful displays throughout the city.
Before the village cemetery, we went to the main city cemetery where food
stands were set up outside, live music could be heard from blocks away, and locals
danced among the mausoleum crypts. Candles were omnipresent and the flickering
flames lent a surreal image as throngs of people moved in and out of the shadows.
Now in this little village several miles outside of town we wandered about
the spooky graveyard. Many families were keeping vigil, some quietly, alone in
their thoughts, and others in a party mode. They seemed to appreciate our concern
“Es mi papá,” one teenage girl told me, pointing to a grave covered with
food and flowers. Her mother told us about him, how long it had been since he had
passed away, etc., and reminded us that he was a “very good man.” But the time
for tears had been long gone and a contented happiness infused with pride brought
him back for her.
At another grave, a woman was adding a few bottles of Tecate to a growing
pile of tamales, chocolates and fruits. “This was his favorite beer,” she told us
about her deceased husband. “He loved his Tecate.”
Some members of another large family group had a card game going as they
sat above a grave in flickering candlelight.
Elsewhere in Mexico, the colonial city of Patzcuaro in central Mexico also
has large and popular activities for the Day of The Dead celebrations. We were
disappointed in some Mexican cities, like Veracruz, Xalapa, and Tlaxcala, where
after planning our visits to coincide with the Dia de los Muertos, the celebrations
were more subdued.
Baja California is not especially renowned for Day of The Dead
celebrations. Tecate and La Paz (Baja Sur), are two that have events to mark the
celebration. In most cities you will know when you’re in the vicinity of a cemetery,
however. You will usually find street vendors selling flowers, food, decorations,
and small “calaveras,” those little wooden skeletons.
Traffic sometimes gets backed up in Tijuana in front of Panteόn Jardín on
Calle Benito Juarez (2nd Street/Calle Segundo) where the Ensenada toll road dead
ends (no pun intended) into the cemetery. Tijuana also offers graveyard tours. See
Rosarito’s Katrina Fest
To honor the Day of the Dead and the Calavera Catrina, the city of Rosarito
hosts a family-friendly event on November 1 and 2 called “Katrina Fest.” In
addition to typical Day of the Dead festivities, the event includes art
demonstrations, food, and music. The free event takes place in the Municipal Art
and Culture Institute (IMAC) in Rosarito at Abelardo Rodriguez Park, starting at
noon and running until midnight. For more information, check out the Katrina Fest
Nowhere else in the world but Mexico is death celebrated with the same light-
heartedness. Mexicans laugh and joke about death and from childhood learn that
life and death are a pair.
According to Mexican comedian Hector Suarez, laughing at death does not
mean Mexicans aren’t afraid of it. “Mexicans fear death,” he said, “so they want to
be death’s friend. They think that if they are his friend, he won’t do anything to
them. That is why a Mexican plays with death.”
According to one Mexican anthropologist, “In terms of its impact on
society, the Day of the Dead is the most important celebration of the year. It is a
day for joy, a day for sadness. It is a ceasefire, when people are expected to forgive
each other. It gives people an inner strength. It is sad to see a relative die, but it is
not so sad if you have this belief.”