Didn't see nobody cryin'

So strange are Mexico's Day of the Dead traditions that there's little chance a foreigner will ever be able to fully comprehend them.

Elsewhere in Latin America, people celebrate the Día de los Santos Difuntos alright, roughly the "Day of the Saintly Deceased," with tightly-wound decorum. Dirges and whispered prayers waft in churches filled by women wearing black dresses and veils. A hushed procession to the cemetery may follow, for more prayers, kind words, stifled tears and flowers in memory of grandma Josefina or uncle Rigoberto.

In the U.S. whatever religious significance All Souls' Day ever had long ago succumbed to the commercial hustle of Halloween and three weeks after that, Thanksgiving. Still, on Memorial Day some families wearing their Sunday finery will decorate the graves of their dead relatives and place small American flags on those who were in the military.

There's none of that propriety and restraint for Mexicans. Their directness starts with the name of the feast day: Forget "souls," "saints," "departed," "passed away" or other pious euphemisms. On November 1 and 2, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead. Josefina and Rigoberto are not up on a cloud benignly spying on their progeny below, but dead 
--though hardly forgotten.

As if to underline the point, Mexicans bring out into play all sorts of death-related paraphernalia--bones, skulls, skeletons--that in other countries would be considered morbid, in bad taste or downright gross. What's the story with Mexican children nibbling on skulls made of sugar?

Recently, along the blood-splattered states near the U.S. border, where the narco wars have killed tens of thousands, some Mexicans have minted a new saint, "Santa Muerte" ("Holy Death") though the Catholic Church disavows any such creature.

Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously asserted that the word "death" burns the lips of a Westerner while a Mexican caresses it, celebrates it, and jokes about it. "It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love."

As many times as I've read the "Day of the Dead" chapter  in "The Labyrinth of Solitude," and marveled at Paz' silver prose, I still can't fully appreciate what he is talking about. How can anyone celebrate and caress death?

My perplexity mounts every time we visit a Mexican cemetery on the Day of the Dead, which has become a well-trod tourist spectacle. This year we skipped the crowded main cemetery and went to smaller one on the outskirts of San Miguel, closer to the ranch.

There was a festive country-fair air as we approach the cemetery, or panteón, as Mexicans seem to prefer. Vendors sold food, flowers--thousands of brilliant marigolds are the standard--plus balloons and toys. Visitors arrived with plastic chairs and shopping bags full of food, as if heading for a picnic, and in some cases also brought cans of paint, brushes, and picks and shovels for last-minute gravesite remodeling or maintenance.

There were several for-hire duos and trios too offering quick, spirited bellowings of Day of the Dead favorites, and a few larger combos playing more elegant serenades by singers accompanied by accordions, guitars, bass fiddles, and drums.

A young guy lost in his memories,
perhaps of his dead mother or father.
What we didn't see was anyone crying.

Yet there was nothing disrespectful or crass about the celebrations, except for an occasional drunk stumbling by. Some families huddled around a grave eating lunch and presumably talking about the dead relative. Others read from dog-eared bibles or prayer books, or touched up the paint.

No amount of music or chatting though could soften the impact of the disproportionate number of rows of baby-sized graves, marked with little angels of stone or concrete, and signs noting lives that may have lasted only a few days, weeks or months, if that.

Behaving like a couple of Mexicans-for-a-day, Stew and I bought a handful of Day of the Dead marigolds and put them in a vase next to the urn containing the ashes of my mother who died nine years ago.

For the requisite touch of frivolity I then placed the urn and the flowers next to clay figures of a couple of Day of the Dead bandoleros who look like Bonnie and Clyde each clutching a rifle, except these are skeletons wearing sombreros.

My mom probably wouldn't appreciate the humor. Not mom.

If I were dead, though, I'd be flattered by such festivities around my gravesite. All I ask is that the musicians tune up and practice just a little bit, and that visitors, please, clean up after themselves.


Below are others photographs we took during our visit. 

The children's section of the cemetery. 
One offering for a dead child.

Multi-tasking: Painting the tombstone while listening to the music.

A prayerful vigil amid the festivities. 

A kind gesture: Some visitors drop marigolds on
gravesites otherwise unattended. 

Two parakeets get to visit the cemetery,
maybe to chirp for their dearly departed owner. 



  1. I will try once again to post. I have tried in the past but my words didn't post. I thought YOU censored! But now I understand there it was due to a technical anomaly and not a person. I feel better.

    Thank you for the good description of el Dia de Los Muertos. It reminds me more of Easter than All Saints or Halloween. Possibly because there aren't tears.


  2. Thanks for a very interesting column on the difference in our cultures. And the photos made great examples. I especially like the picture of the birds being brought along in their cage.

  3. Joan:

    Some people have trouble posting and I don't know why. I haven't censored or deleted any comments. Glad your comment finally got in.


  4. Phil: I wonder too where that woman went with the parakeets. I spotted her as we were leaving. Should have turned around and followed her.


  5. My Dad would have been the perfect Mexican. I told him that when he died I would take his ashes to all of the family celebrations. And I have done that -- though my Mother refused to sit next to him in his cardboard box wearing a black tie at my nephew's wedding. She would not make a good Mexican.

  6. Can't blame her. "Cotton" doesn't sound like a very Mexican name.

  7. Very touching! The photo of the decorated baby's grave was touching in their attention to detail. The way they lined up the clover and the sugar decorations.
    Thanks for sharing!


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