Oaxaca, Mexico – Every year, on November 1 and 2,families across Latin America gather to celebrate the return of their deceased relatives, as the dead are believed to visit their former homes to eat, drink and spend time with their loved ones.
Thought to be a hybrid of Spanish Catholic and pre-Columbian traditions, Día’s de los Muertos or Day of the Dead has become – for Mexico in particular – one of the most important national celebrations, revealing what many believe to be a uniquely Mexican understanding of death.
“You’re only dead when you’re forgotten,” says 23-year-old Oaxaca City native Yosua, citing a popular saying.
“Here, we grow up with the dead,” he explains. “They are always present. So [the Day of the Dead] is a happy time, it’s when grandma, grandpa or mum get to visit. And things have to be nice when they come.”
In the southern state of Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead takes on its most elaborate form, as tens of thousands of people descend on the capital city to take part in the festivities: parades, special food, celebrations at local cemeteries featuring music and drinking and the legendary comparsa – a carnival-like procession of music, dancing and theatre that moves through the city from November 1 until daybreak on the second.
“When you come here you see people celebrating and engaging with death in a way that is humorous and fun,” says Will Lowell, who is from Ohio in the US, as he watches the comparsa begin. “In our culture death is about denial, sadness and regret. This is something different.”
For many locals, the Day of the Dead begins with the construction of ofrendas or alters for a deceased loved one. Placed in the home, the ofrenda (offering in Spanish) contain flowers, candles and incense, as well as other offerings specific to the individual: A candy scull for a deceased child, a bowl of a mother’s favourite soup, or a grandfather’s preferred brand of Mescal.
The preparation begins on October 31, when Mexicans head to the cemeteries to decorate graves with flowers, to burn candles and light incense – the resulting smells are believed to help guide the deceased back to the grave. Then, on the night of October 31 and November 1 – when the dead are said to return to earth – the cemeteries become places of celebration; families gather to picnic and play music late into the night.
“It’s a party in the cemetery, a celebration,” says Benito De-la Rosa, a 24-year-old from Mexico City who has travelled to Oaxaca for the festivities. “In other countries this would be weird or disrespectful. But for us it is beautiful.”
By noon on November 2, the spirits of the dead have once again left the earth, set to return a year later.
For Manuel Rodriguez, who recently lost his grandmother, this is a great comfort. “This year we got to visit,” he says. “And I look forward to being with her again next year.”