Friday, November 27, 2015

Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca: Rehearsing for Death

Scene from Dance Performance, Oaxaca, MX 

Scene from Dance Performance, Oaxaca, MX

Human beings instinctively fear death.  Yet in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico during the days of Dia de los Muertos, death is central.  Death-themed items such as skeletons, skulls made of sugar, flowers to decorate graves and create altars to the dead, and much more are sold in all Mexican markets. But, the importance of Dia de los Muertos goes way beyond these visual symbols and the events that are associated with them. With all the extravagant visual beauty of Dia de los Muertos it is easy to overlook psychological dimension; this will be done towards the end of this post.

Dia de los Muertos has roots both in the Catholic Church and in the prehispanic indigenous cultures of the region. At its heart is the idea that at this time of year, usually October 31-November 2,  the "veil" between the living and the dead becomes thin and the dead return to visit.  For a fuller explanation of Dia de los Muertos  please refer to my blog posts: 

 Dia de los Muertos celebrates the relationship between the living and the dead with colorful death-themed paraphernalia sold in markets throughout Mexico in the weeks preceding the holiday; death is on view everywhere.

Market, Oaxaca MX

The dead are welcomed back, included and special food is prepared for them and left on  altars made in their honor and on graves.

Santa Cruz, Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, MX

Cemetery, Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca

Altar in church, Santa Cruz, Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, MX

Graves and graveyards are specially decorated for the event in ways that range from the simple to the dramatic.  The grave below is in Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca and it shows the typical flowers used for Dia de los Muertos- marigolds and cockscomb as well as the candles that are used to illuminate the graves at night.

Cemetery in Santa Cruz, Xoxocotlan Oaxaca MX

In some cemeteries, grave decorations are much more elaborate and done by professional artists who specialize in this kind of work, as in this grave from San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca. This grave is of a man who had been an organist/pianist of note and his family had paid to have this complex floral tribute created.

Cemetery in San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca MX

The cemeteries are full of mourners who express their grief in various ways. Some people sit in silence and others are more boisterous, creating a party-like atmosphere in the cemeteries. Many of the cemeteries in Oaxaca have live bands playing on stages.

Cemetery in Santa Maria Atzompa, Oaxaca MX

There is a subtle psychological dimension to Dia de los Muertos that is easy to overlook. True, it is a holiday for honoring, remembering and connecting with the beloved dead, but, in a way, it is also a holiday that prepares the living for death.  During Dia de los Muertos, and particularly in Oaxaca, you see people in all kinds of places with skeleton-painted faces. 

Singers leading Procession of Virgin of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, MX

Dia de los Muertos revelers, Oaxaca, MX

Dia de los Muertos revelers, Oaxaca, MX

The people in these photos were participating in one of Oaxaca's famous night-long celebrations that happen throughout the city from October 31-November 2.   It is easy to dismiss the painted faces as "just" a costume, but this is missing their deeper significance, one which most Dia de los Muertos revelers are unaware. Having a face painted like a skeleton is a way of connecting with the idea of being dead oneself.  Looking in the mirror and seeing a skeleton looking back has some psychological impact whether or not  the participant is aware of it.

Cemetery in Santa Maria Atzompa, Oaxaca

Some mourners in graveyards have skeleton-painted faces in the spirit of the celebration but also in a kind of solidarity with the dead. It is a poignant way of recognizing and sharing kinship with those no longer living.

Cemetery in Tlalixtac de Cabrera Oaxaca MX

Cemetery in Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca MX

Cemetery in Santa Maria Atzompa, Oaxaca MX

Each year in Oaxaca, during the time of Dia de los Muertos, symbols of death are everywhere.  Although a lot of the holiday's events are entertaining, there is something much more profound to all of it.   During Dia de los Muertos everyone is face to face with the most centrally-feared event in human life, death.  Having this repeated opportunity to interface with death in such an open and positive way does impact participants and their outlook on death.