When I think of death I recall to Professor Dumbledore’s words from The Philosopher’s Stone, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Because of the emotional roller coaster people get themselves in when dealing with death, we cope with this inevitable part of life vastly differently from one person to the next. Using myself as an example I will be the first to tell you that I deal with death as a celebration. A celebration for the person’s life towards the next, wherever that place may be. At the same time, I tend to remain rather neutral and treat death as say a quick trip to the convenient store. And yes, I’ve always been this way and I owe it to my upbringing you see, the women in my family have set a standard on remaining neutral in severe situations, especially during someone’s passing for the sole purpose of being a much-needed pillar for those coping with death. Considering some folk don’t deal with death as well as we do. Do I fear death? No, but as I get older I’ve become well aware of my own mortality and with each passing, death becomes ever so closer.
El Día de los Muertos is a national holiday observed on the 2nd of November within the Mexican Republic and its been a staple holiday my family has observed for as long as we’ve been around. By no means am I an expert or an authority for this or any other Mexican holiday, but from what I know El Día de Muertos has its origins heavily rooted in Pre-Hispanic times. In those days, native peoples baked human shapes out of Amaranthus and covered them with juice of the Tuna (prickly pear) to symbolize blood. This was how they honored those who have passed over to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.
Surprisingly however not much is done on the actual holiday. The city pretty much shuts down as November 2ndis to be spent at home with family. The majority of events and celebration of the holiday take place on the latter weeks of October with the main event take place on October 31st at the Mictlancihuatl cemetery (named after Mictlantecutli, Goddess of Mictlan) in the town of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, roughly 20 miles south of Downtown Oaxaca. The Mictlancihuatl cemetery or the new cemetery as it’s known to the locals hosts a wake the night of October 31st to symbolize the welcome of our passed loved ones from the netherworld. A massive celebration of vendors, food, music and carnival games gather outside both the new and old cemeteries in Xoxocotlán. We’re fortunate to have our Great Uncle buried in the new cemetery, which grants us permission to hang out at the grave site all night. Our Great Aunts brings with her candles, marigold flowers, beer, Mezcal, fruits and sugar cane to decorate the grave site of her passed husband, along with food for us to eat while we sit around the grave and listen to music as the musicians walk from grave to grave asking for a few pesos in exchange to play the songs our passed loved ones enjoyed in this life.
The best part of the holiday aside from the Comparsas (Halloween themed parades) throughout the city, is the food and free Mezcal you get while walking in the Comparsas. At home, my Grandmother puts together an altar in the spare room of her house two weeks prior from November 2nd. To my surprise, my Grandmother had the foresight to plant marigold flowers at the plot of land we own close to the town of Zaachila. The altar is decorated with photos of our passed loved ones, together with an abundance of marigold flowers or as we call them Flor de Muerto. Other adornments include Pan de Muerto, Mezcal, fruits, nuts and as the day gets closer, tamales de frijol, tamales de mole and other dishes our passed loved ones enjoyed when they were alive. About a week before November 2nd, the grave site of both my Grandfather and Uncle (they share the same gravesite) is decorated with the same adornments found on our altar. As I stated, I’m not the authority of this or any other holiday, but you’re always welcomed to visit Oaxaca during this time and I’ll happily show you around.