Day of the Dead: A Tradition That Refuses to Die
The Aztecs, along with other pre-Hispanic cultures, celebrated death as a continuation of life: life was a dream, and only in death would one awaken. When the Spanish invaded Mesoamerica they were shocked to find that the indigenous populations appeared to be mocking death with what they considered profane rituals. To a Spaniard, death represented not the continuation of life, but only the end of it, and beliefs that conflicted with their own were considered threatening. In an attempt to discontinue this ‘primitive’ native ritual, the Spanish moved Day of the Dead so that it coincided with the November first holiday All Hallows Eve, in theory creating a more acceptable Christian holiday. But the Spanish failed to completely eradicate the holiday: Today Day of the Dead is still celebrated through rituals with roots in both pre-Hispanic and Christian traditions.
The term Day of the Dead is slightly misleading in that it seems to imply only one day of celebration. In reality Day of the Dead spans two days, the first and second of November. All Saint’s Day (All Hallows Eve) is celebrated on the first. To pay homage to deceased children, a pilgrimage is made to the local cemetery and rituals are preformed in honor of the dead. The same rituals are preformed the following night for adults. The rituals consist of the adornment of the graves of loved ones with marigolds, the flower of the dead. Candles and personal items favored by the loved one before their passing, such as pictures, cigarettes, chocolate and mescal, are also placed on the graves to entice the dead to return to the cemetery from the afterlife. The incense copal is burned and family members recite prayers and chants to further encourage the dead. Alters located in homes are often decorated in the same manner as the graves in hopes of luring the spirits of the dead home. Christian influence can be seen in both the cemetery and the home through the inclusion of decorations of crosses and pictures of Jesus on the graves as well as through Christian prayers said for the dead.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel on a class trip to one of the cemeteries in Xoxocotlan, a pueblo outside of Oaxaca, to experience Day of the Dead rituals. From speaking with my host family earlier that day, I had learned that the Day of the Dead was supposed to be a celebration. People gathered in the cemetery to celebrate the lives of the dead, not their deaths. It was a mostly happy time, filled with good memories and funny stories of the dead, not a somber occasion of mourning. Before I arrived at the cemetery in Xoxo, as it is commonly called, I was expecting to see an ‘authentic’ experience and was feeling grateful that I was probably going to have the opportunity to be one of the few non-Mexican people in the cemetery. What I actually saw when I arrived clashed with my expectations and greatly surprised me. Around the cemetery many small stores had opened up to offer food, cheap trinkets and various types of alcohol to visitors to the cemetery. I suppose it should be expected that someone will always try to make a buck however they can, and that’s probably not always a bad thing. But what was truly shocking was how touristy the holiday had become.
When I finally was able to enter the cemetery (it was so full that I had to struggle to even get inside – I felt like I was part of the human herd that inevitably forms after a large concert or sporting event), I was surprised to see hordes of wealthy looking Americans – many of whom were obviously drunk off of the mescal and beer sold in stands outside the cemetery – yelling loudly, stepping on gravestones and knocking over candles. And through their ignorance and self-centeredness, these people, at least for me, almost ruined the experience. But more than the disgust I felt towards my countrymen, I felt a deep respect for the Mexicans I saw in the cemetery. I could see dozens of Mexican families kneeling at various well-lighted graves, chanting and telling stories about lost loved ones. There was a certain palpable determination present in these people that manifested itself in a humble pride on their faces. They were polite to all, answering questions presented by dumb tourists when possible and explaining their customs to those who could speak Spanish.
I watched one particular family for almost thirty minutes and saw several tourists literally trample through their grave-altar. This family never became angry, nor did they retaliate. They simply fixed the damage and continued to pray and chant as if nothing outside of their ritual existed. From watching their lack of reaction I was able to gain a small understanding of the history of the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Mexico as they have tried to preserve their culture and traditions, first against the Spanish invasion, and now against encroaching tourism and commercialization. As I watched this family honor the dead I realized that no invasion could completely wipe out a tradition as strong as Day of the Dead, nor could it change the level of respect taught in Mexican culture for those who have come before. I’m glad I saw what I saw, but looking back, if I’m ever again in Mexico on Day of the Dead, I won’t be going back to a cemetery: Some things should be left as they are, unchallenged, uninterrupted, unconquered.