Drawn by the intrigue of all-night vigils in cemeteries and life-size skeletons propped jauntily in shop windows, tourists flock to Oaxaca and other points in Mexico for Day of the Dead.
During the last week in October, voyeurs come to observe and to photograph the “picturesque” practices of “quaint” indigenous Mexicans. The idea of reunions at family gravesites, complete with music, food and gaiety strike foreigners as strange, to say the least. They stare in wonder at shops filled with candy skulls and calaveras (skeletons) made of wood, paper mache, clay, wax and sugar. Dressed as doctors, judges, teachers, tennis players and prostitutes, the calaveras engage in all kinds of activities from dancing and drinking to hair styling and singing. Every conceivable profession and pastime is burlesqued. Their human-like antics draw smiles from passersby. And indeed, Mexicans view skeletons as funny and friendly rather than spooky and scary.
The concept of the Danse Macabre brought from Europe was adopted by the Mexicans and fused with the prehispanic customs and attitudes, resulting in a uniquely Mexican custom especially prevalent in Oaxaca today. According to an anonymous manuscript dated 1553, the Spanish observed: “They used to celebrate the feast of the dead, because they offered in their honor to the devil many turkeys, corn, blankets, clothing, food and other things. In particular, every household celebrated a great feast. They incensed the images they had of their dead parents, kinsmen and priests.”
Today, far from an occasion for curious onlookers, traditions associated with the Day of the Dead reflect the Mexican belief in the duality of life and death. While they mourn and miss their dead loved ones, they also believe that death is just an extension of life. It’s part of a natural progression, not an end. The dead continue to exist and return annually to visit their loved ones. Many of the customs, such as home altars and cemetery vigils, are to help them find their way and to welcome them home.
Just as there are differences in beliefs among the many ethnic groups which make up Oaxaca, so too are there differences in the details of the altars and the celebrations from one family to another. Typically, each family builds and decorates an altar in its home. An altar usually begins with a table on which are placed boxes to represent the tombs and all is covered with a white tablecloth or sheet. Long stalks of sugarcane or carrizo are tied to the front legs of the table and formed into a triumphal arc above the altar. Flowers, candles, images of the saints, and photos or other rembrances of the beloved dead abound, along with favorite foods, drink and other items.
For instance, if the deceased smoked or drank, then cigarettes and mezcal are placed on the altar, together with any other special foods or tributes which were a favorite in life. The markets sell miniature skeletons made of clay or paper mache for this purpose. So, if uncle Pepe liked to fish, the family places a skeleton of a man fishing on the altar. These items tell the returning dead that they have indeed found the right place and are welcome. If the altar is for an “angelito” or dead child, it will also include favorite toys and many white flowers.
Because they will be hungry after their long journey home, special offerings of food may include mole, nicuatole, pumpkin cooked with brown sugar, cane sugar and tejocotes. Beautifully decorated pan de muerto, chocolate, pecans and peanuts. Cooked chayote and fresh fruits – oranges, lemons, bananas, jícama, tejocotes, nísperos and pineapple. Then comes the lamp with oil of higuerilla, the wax candles, white or yellow adorned with black crepe paper. Markets feature the special foods, decorations, and calaveras during the month of October.
In a way, Day of the Dead is a misnomer. The principal celebrations actually take place beginning October 31 and end on November 2. In addition, special categories of deceased are honored on preceding days. On October 28 , those who died in accidents, suicides, homicides and other violent deaths are honored. October 29 is for the unbaptized and October 30 for the lonely soul .
At 3 p.m. on October 31, the angelitos (children who died after being baptized) arrive to visit their families and depart at the same hour on November 1, to permit the adults to visit. From that time, until 2:00 P.M. on November 2, families decorate the tombs in the cemeteries and spend time with family members buried there, sharing offerings of food and drink with friends and relatives.
Oaxacans who live in other parts of the world and who are able to return for only one celebration during the year, try to be with their families at this time. Oaxaca is one of the few places in the world that preserves these customs and traditions, which is why it has become a favorite destination for El Dia de Los Muertos.
Ever caring, ever sharing, and hospitable, Oaxacans each year graciously receive thousands of strangers eager to witness their ceremonies in affirmation of life and what comes after. Visitors who come to learn about a culture different from their own and RESPECTULLY observe and appreciate all of the color and pageantry are welcome to spend time in cemeteries to enjoy the beauty of the decorations and the delicious food of the season. Some of you may even want to create an altar, complete with a calavera for a departed loved one.
The most popular cemeteries to visit in and near Oaxaca are as follows. –
( You may drive, hire a taxi, or take an organized tour offered at many travel agencies. Public transportation is an option also, although buses will undoubtedly be crowded at these times).
- October 31 evening – Xoxocotlan, later that night – Santa María Atzompa
- November 1 – San Miguel (Panteón General) in the city all day and evening.
- November 2 late afternoon – San Antonino (sometimes this date changes depending on day of week – all travel agencies and tourist information centers should know of any changes).
- November 2, evening and night – San Felipe del Agua
- The City of Oaxaca also arranges events at the San Miguel Cemetery, such as exhibition/competition of altars, music, etc.