“The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it,
sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love.”
~ Octavio Paz
Death intrigues me. Perhaps it is a morbid fascination, but I do reflect on it deeply at times. We usually panic a little when we think about dying, because there doesn’t seem to be any clarity on what comes next, and whether our time on Earth actually means something to anyone but us. To find my answer to this human dilemma, I decided to research different cultures. I want to find out how people are remembered, and more precisely, how I will live on after I am gone.
I investigated this idea by researching how different cultures remember their dead, and when I came across the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos, I was instantly drawn in. In our culture we remember our loved ones with somber, private gatherings, if at all. But in Mexico, families and friends gather and celebrate every year, with songs, decorations, flowers, and stories.
To find out more, I travelled to the beautiful Spanish colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, nestled in central Mexico, about four hours by bus from Mexico City. Its picturesque cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and central location make it a perfect place to photograph this celebration of death as an awakening, rather than an end to life.
It’s just two days before the big celebration, and as I finish breakfast at my favorite Internet café, I ask the owner, Juan, where I should go to photograph some of the preparations, which interest me almost as much as the celebration itself. He directs me to the market where a whole area is set up just to cater to Dia de los Muertos. When I arrive, the market is alive with a hum of activity, exuding an air of joyous anticipation among the many vendors and customers as they exchange greetings. Under the canvas covered stalls are sugar skulls and coffins, as well as other sweet treats families will put on their altars to their dead. Brightly colored paper cutouts and skeleton sculptures called Catrinas appear ready to dance. Bundles of orange and cream-colored wax candles for sale will be lit later during the celebrations. The scene is so bright and alive; it appears to mock death. As I leave the market, I pass by a local bakery and am nearly overcome by the sweet aroma of “pan de muertos,” a sweetbread traditionally made for this occasion.
As I sit sipping my morning coffee on October 31st, my new friend Juan tells me that the main preparations for the next two days of celebrations begin tonight. On my map, he shows me where many altars will be set up to remember the dead, and where the key celebration activities will take place.
In the afternoon, I visit some of the altar sites, and at every occasion I am amazed at seeing people of all ages – from the very young to the very old – setting up their altars. In every home an altar is being set up, commemorating a lost loved one with their picture, some of their favorite food, and of course that sweet smelling “pan de muertos.” Decorations of marigolds – flowers of the dead – as well as candles and copal incense grace the altar. Other mementos are also present, representing a favorite pleasure, such as a cigar and some tequila, or a child’s toy for a younger one. All this, I am told, is to make the spirit welcome as they visit.
The public buildings have some of the biggest and most ornate altars in the city, so these are high on my list to see. A beautiful Catrina sculpture forms the centerpiece of the altar at the public library and diamonds of orange and purple decorative sawdust cover the cobblestone courtyard as crosses are placed in careful arrangement. At the museum, a large orange and purple marigold-encrusted altar is being set up, and at every church and public place, a similar sight is present.
In the early evening, I make my way to the Jardin, a small park in the centre of town. It is already crowded with visitors and locals, and the mood is truly festive. Street vendors are selling corn and hot dogs; mariachi singers are serenading couples sitting on the park benches. High school children have gathered to hang huge canvas murals and to make lavish tapestries of brightly colored sawdust on the street. It will take all of this evening and some of the next day to complete these works. Several hours pass and the party-like scene is still going on when I leave for the evening.
Today is the big day and I head to the Panteon – the main cemetery – across town with my camera. Just outside the gates, glorious arrays of fresh flowers are for sale as eager customers line up to purchase them. Inside, a major clean up is fully underway as families clean their family gravesite, make repairs and put on a fresh coat of paint before adding the more decorative touches of the day. I have never seen a cemetery feel so alive with activity. The families take great care to make the most of their decorating skills.
I am surprised to hear music, and notice a group of singers playing guitars and singing beautiful songs for a family and their lost loved one. A father and his young son carefully decorate the mother’s grave and I am touched. The father motions to me to come over and take a picture of his son. The boy beams with pride in having his picture taken by his mother’s grave. The many scenes of joyful expressions to the dead are overwhelming.
It is later in the afternoon when I get to a much smaller cemetery in the old part of town and though the grave sites are more worn, they are nonetheless magnificently decorated – each becoming an altar to the dead buried there. I notice a monarch butterfly resting on one of the decorated stones, and recognize the significance of the butterfly as a transformed spirit, awakened and free from its cocoon, and how it resembles what I feel about this celebration. Some time later, seeing great swirls of smoke coming from the burning copal, I observe a sort of spiritual dance taking place as the smoke rises into the trees. It’s as if the spirits from the graves awaken for the night’s celebrations and fun.
In the evening, I return to the Jardin, where all the decorations are complete and a party is underway. A concert stage is alive with performers, children run about, and a large crowd has gathered to celebrate. I can almost feel the many spirits also present, joining in the revelry.
For me, this is how life is celebrated. There is no somber reflection or grief, but an embrace of the full cycle of life – that death is not the end, but the start of a new chapter. This experience changes me, and I now feel differently when I think about dying. I know that a part of me will live on.