Grief is a funny thing. One minute it’s all-encompassing, in other moments it slips away into the ether. At first, it is inescapable. A heavyweight crushing the air out of your lungs, a vicious black wolf always one step behind in the shadows.

And then, as time passes on, grief becomes more integrated into the daily life. We learn to love again, to live with the grief in our hearts and we move on. But, I know in my culture at least, celebrating the lives of those lost is rarely a regular component of bereavement.

A Special Time to Celebrate the Lost

El Dia de Muertos has always fascinated me, but after the death of my father, the intrigue of this Mexican celebration deepened. Each year instead of mourning helplessly, people from all across Mexico and other Latin American countries gather to sing, dance, feast, and celebrate nights spent reuniting with their lost loves.

I wondered how people might still feel joy after a loss, how they may celebrate what in my culture is considered such a sombre occasion. In some ways, I wanted to face my own sense of loss through the ceremonies of others. I read voraciously, yet needed so desperately to experience it for myself.

The opportunity came through the decision to spend 6 months living in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico. One of the most important spots to observe Dia de Muertos, people book their flights and accommodations up to a year in advance to attend. Already living in the oldest neighbourhood of Oaxaca, moments away from the most important central cemetery and a quick stroll down to the city centre provided us with the perfect spot to immerse into the local celebrations.

Atzompa Cemetery, Oaxaca. Dia de Muertos. Photo by Florent Catrevaux

The Origins of Dia de Muertos

The origins date back many hundreds of year to indigenous observances, one of which was the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the dead in Aztec mythology. She has a defleshed body, and a wide, agape jaw designed to swallow the daytime stars. Mictecacihuatl watches over the bones of the dead and oversees the ancient festivals of the dead. She played an important role to the Aztecs and was an influence of the modern Day of the Dead.

It all kicked off in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, an entire month of celebration dedicated to the goddess of the dead. What began as an August tribute to Mictecacihuatl transformed into a November honouring of the La Calavera Catrina instead.

In fact, Dia de Muertes wasn’t even celebrated outside of Southern Mexico, nor was it considered a national holiday until the 20th century. Before then it was contained to the Southern states of Mexico where the Mesoamerican influence was prevalent. Further to the north, it was rejected by the people and the church. Instead, they held a traditional All Saints’ Day now, like the other Christians in the world. Over time, the south came to embrace Dia de Muertos, and the Dia de Muertos dates were shifted back in line with All Saints Day.

Marigolds and Anticipation

But yet, here we were. In the midst of a celebration that has since spread across the rest of Mexico, and the world.

As the days drew near, the streets were pregnant with marigold stalls. A Dia de Muertes market popped up in the entrance to the central city, and the once quiet streets of Oaxaca began heaving with tourists. The local shops around us began to close up for the week, as it became a time for family above all else. Pan de Muerto was being baked. Flores de Muerto was being strung into garlands. The few restaurants left open were offering a particularly special comida Dia de Muertos. A meal composed of a particular mole reserved only for this time of year, served with chocolate, bread, and a hot spiced fruit punch.

The evenings were alive with people beginning their week-long holiday period. Neighbourhood alters appeared, catrinas and skeletons began popping up on houses and storefronts across town. It is the tradition that each home, each store, even the kindergarten and the government offices, creates a shrine. A tribute to all who’ve passed on so that they will never be forgotten.

For once a soul is no longer remembered, they can no longer pass into the realm of the living on this special night to drink mezcal and dance until the sunrise. Instead they fade away into the land of the forgotten.

The Three Days of Muertos

Each of the three days brings its own meaning. The very first, Día de Los Angelitos translates to the day of the little angels. This is a special day for those who’ve lost children. The family create alters out of toys, games, balloons, footballs, along with more traditional offerings. This happens a day before the Dia de Muertos, because the spirits of the children run ahead of the adults, so keen to arrive and visit with their beloved families.

On the second day, we made our way in the evening toward the Xoxocotlan & Atzompa. Xoxocotlan is one of the most famed cemeteries to visit in all Mexico in these days, and so it was in our best interest to get there earlier, before the endless crowds gathering through the night make it difficult to navigate.

A Visit to Xoxocotlan

We arrived in the Xoxocotlan cemetery at the same time as a Mexican fairground was setting up around the edges. Carnival games and food trucks, loud music and sweets provided a stark contrast to the candlelit vigils within the walls. Dia de Muertos is a complete holiday here, a week-long party of fiestas and feasts, family and fairgrounds.

Beyond the glittering border, the atmosphere changed in an instead. Small families gathered around tombstones, fixing up elaborate flower displays and alters of their loved ones most loved foods and drinks. The air was heavy with the intoxicating fragrance of no less than a million marigolds.

With so few people around it felt voyeuristic and uncomfortable to spectate. This felt such a private time, my presence felt an invasion. Across the cemetery I tiptoed, treading carefully between the tombstones, hoping I might somehow become invisible.

Dia de Meurtos in Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca

An Intimate Time for Families

Tears pricked into my eyes witnessing the most intimate altars, a simple photograph lit by flickering candles, sugar skulls, tamales and a bottle of Tecate. A sole woman sat by the grave of a son. Next up, a family of four serenading a grandmother with voice and song, canción de Amor.

The beauty and the detail in which the average Oaxaca person remembered their beloveds was at once heartwarming and breathtaking. Many days of preparations led to the most elaborate of gravesites, decorated with coloured sands, flowers, sculptures.

As the night closed in toward midnight, Xoxocotlan began to become suffocatingly busy. A party, a spectacle. Families staying through the night to party and dance with the dead. The atmosphere shifted from sombre to celebratory, and the party began to kick off.

Atzompa, a Smaller Cemetery on the Outskirts of Oaxaca

And such was our cue, it was time to move on to Atzompa. A smaller and more local event, fewer tourists and a small collection of humble graves without so much fanfare.

The feeling here was soothing. Less of a party and the fairground limited to a few wayward stalls. Atzompa sat on a gentle slope, with vistas out over the Oaxacan valleys. The air was alive with a sense of spirituality, of love, of honour. Graves here ranged from the tiniest of babies through to the elderly, each decorated with tea lights and marigolds. The perfume was intoxicating, and it was impossible to walk without my eyes brimming in tears.

Atzompa Cemetary, Day of the Dead. Photo by Florent Catrevaux

People ate the traditional tamales and sipped on hot chocolate, singing songs and ensuring their beloveds would never slip into the land of the forgotten. I began to reflect on my own loss, on the importance of keeping him alive in my memory and heart. Whilst the Die de Muertos continued on for more days filled with feasting, dancing and parading in the streets, it was this moment, here at Atzompa that resonates the most with me. Despite the tears, I walked away with an open heart and an overwhelming sense of joy and comfort.

The Dia de Muertos is more than just the Halloween party portrayed outside of Mexico. It is an important time for family, to celebrate, to remember in joy, and most importantly to never let those we love drift away into the forgotten.

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