Dia de los Muertos

by Jon Look (November 2011)

For the last few days Vonda and I have been enjoying the riches of San Cristóbal de las Casas and the spectacle that is “Día de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead. The city is alive with energy as inhabitants remember lost friends and family members. Far from being a somber occasion where people wallow in sorrow, Día de los Muertos is a celebration of life and those that have passed. In fact when the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico they tried to stamp out the holiday because they thought it mocked death. They failed and Day of the Dead still thrives.

The origins of the Día de los Muertos celebration among Mexico’s indigenous cultures can be traced back almost 3,000 years. The festival that became the modern Day of the Dead originally took place in August but like so many religious traditions it morphed and became intertwined with the Catholic All Saints Day, November 1st and All Souls Day, November 2nd. Generally November 1st is considered to be the day when infants and children are honored and November 2nd is the day when adults are honored but to me it seemed like everyone was being celebrated all week.

Traditionally October 31st is for cleaning graves. They are made to look fresh, i.e. recently dug with the dirt piled up, and fresh pine needles (representing eternal life) and chrysanthemum petals are scattered over the tops. Finally, planks of wood representing doors are placed on top. On November 1st, the party begins! Offerings include the deceased’s favorite food and drink, favorite objects and in the case of adults, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages are placed on the graves to be shared with the departed. The “doors” are opened so friends and family can have conversations with their loved ones. Everyone seems to have a good time. There is some mourning in evidence but there are also many smiles and much laughter. In talking about it, it all seems a bit morbid and maybe somewhat disrespectful but after experiencing it in person it is very life affirming and quite uplifting.

Vonda and I decided to spend November 1st at El Romerillo, a small Chamulan village located northeast of San Cristóbal. The cemetery at El Romerillo sits atop a large rise that is covered with huge, blue wooden crosses. Remarkably crosses in the Chamulan culture substantially pre-date Christianity. Also, new small color-coded crosses are placed on the graves to indicate the nature of the person buried there (adult, child, male, female, etc.) and the older crosses are left in place or allowed to litter the site. The cleaned graves give the eerie impression that deceased loved ones could rise from the earth at any moment.

There are colorful chrysanthemums everywhere, (presumably to attract the deceased to their offerings). Freshly cut pine trees are attached to the giant crosses on the hill and pine boughs are tied to the crosses that mark each grave. They even have a Ferris wheel, and other carnival rides, food booths and merchandise hawkers with microphones extolling the crowd to buy everything from skin care products to kitchen gadgets. Children laugh and play among the graves. Adults drink pox (pronounced “posh,” corn liquor, quite tasty!) and share portions by pouring small amounts on the graves.

Day of the Dead is a wonderful combination of holiday and memorial. Mix in some pagan ritual and a little pox and you have quite a party.

If you would like to see some of the older posts as well as Jon’s occasional rants, they are on LifePart2.com.