Travel Journal: Mexico
I’m terrified of dead people. I get the heebie-jeebies just walking in cemeteries...and I’m not a big fan of funerals. I regularly avoid Louisville’s “Zombie Walk” on Bardstown Road, and any scary movie (with the exception of kids’ movies) with ghosts or cemeteries or generally dead people freak me out. So when I heard we’d be travelling to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead celebrations, needless to say, I got a little scared.
As in many Latin American countries, Mexico commemorates the Day of the Dead on November 2. The legacy of past civilizations is graphically manifested on this occasion through people’s beliefs that death is a transition from one life to another in different levels where communication exists between the living and the dead. This communication takes place once a year throughout the country. Differing from the Roman Catholic imposed ritual to commemorate All Souls’ Day, which is observed in many countries, the custom established by pre-colonial Mexican civilizations has become a ceremony where indigenous beliefs are blended with Catholic beliefs. Therefore, the Day of the Dead in Mexico is not a mournful commemoration but a happy and colorful celebration where death takes a lively, friendly expression.
Indigenous people believed that souls did not die, that they continued living in Mictlan, a special place to rest. In this place, the spirits rest until the day they could return to their homes to visit their relatives. Before the Spaniards arrived, they celebrated the return of the souls between the months of July and August. Once arrived, the Spaniards changed the festivities to November 2 to coincide with the All Souls’ Day of the Catholic Church. Presently, two celebrations honoring the memory of loved ones who have died take place: On November 1, the souls of the children are honored with special designs in the altars, using white on flowers and candles. On November 2, the souls of the adults are remembered with a variety of rituals, according to the different states of the Mexican republic.
We travelled to the city of Oaxaca, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca (I’m assuming they ran out of names for cities...) for the celebration, which included a visit to...(cue scary music and “duhn, duhn, duhn”)...a cemetery. However, when we arrived, it was unlike any cemetery I’d ever been in—the graves were covered with beautiful colored flowers and adorned with photos, candles, and their favorite foods. The mood was less somber and mournful, and more celebratory and commemorative. I talked with a woman who was “waiting” for her late uncle, and she told me that for her the celebration was just that—a celebration of the deceased people's lives, and how they touched others while they were living. And more than that, she told me, the holiday is about remembering our lives and being grateful for the time we have on earth.
I’m not saying my fear of cemeteries or the dead has been cured, but it was breathtaking to see the holiday and the dead in a new light—to see how one culture brings family together to celebrate their loved ones who have passed on, whether it be through a memorial service at the cemetery, a feast of their favorite foods at the dinner table, or by appreciating the lives that each of us have now.
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