Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s quiet. The sky is covered over with a blanket of thin clouds. Birdsong accentuates the space. Though it’s the end of June just before the solstice, the morning is chill. A breath of wind rustles the guaje tree branches outside the kitchen window. I need a wool wrap. Breakfast is hot oatmeal with goat yoghurt and fresh mango. I am conscious of each bite. Conscious of my mouth chewing, my tongue curling around my teeth, the swallow of sustenance. It is quiet. I feel the solitude. Perhaps this is the morning calm before the sky opens in an eruption of sun and heat, later to be soothed by afternoon rain.

She died yesterday. It’s as if she is waiting to take flight, her soul soaring skyward to the heavens, as her body is prepared by loved ones for burial before the procession to the cemetery. The street in front of her house is covered in a raised white tent, a shelter and a blessing on all who exit and enter. It is a sign to know she has passed to where the gods will take her. This is how it’s done here in the Zapotec village where I live in southern Mexico.

We know other life cycle events by the red and blue striped tents that cover patios and courtyards and streets. These are the happy times: baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Life here is a constant celebration.

Early summer. Just plowed fields wait to receive indigenous seeds: corn, beans and squash. The earth is moist with rain, fertile volcanic soil is enriched with manure plowed under over centuries. Crops rotate. Fields go fallow. The dry season comes in winter to welcome snow birds. The rainy season cycles around again.

The band plays in her courtyard. It is a dirge. Familiar. Known to all. A call to the dead and those still living to pay attention, pay homage, give thanks, pause, embrace family and mourn. I climb the stairs to the rooftop to look out over the valley and the street where she lived. I didn’t know her well, only in passing. She was a slight woman, quiet, mother of eight, who battled diabetes for the past ten years and died well before sixty.LevineMuertos NormaBest11Xoxo10312013-6

Church bells ring. Sobering. Somber. Soon the procession will form, led by a drummer, followed by the band playing the dirges. Pallbearers will carry her casket, followed by women whose heads are covered in black rebozos. They holdy flowers and candles as they likely did centuries ago. They will walk slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, one foot before the other, through the cobbled streets to the cemetery where she is buried today.

The family will sit in mourning for a week, receive visitors who bring bread, chocolate, flowers, candles and condolences. A black bow will cover the doorway to the house. The bow will stay there forever, until it disintegrates in the wind, rain, sun, over time.

In nine months, her grave will be dedicated with a cross, placed in front of those who passed before her. Until then, it will be unmarked. When they put her to rest in the earth, they will move aside the bones of her ancestors to make a space for her. Her soul will return to visit loved ones during Day of the Dead each year following the scent of cempazuchitl and copal. May she rest in peace.

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12 Responses to Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

  1. Norma, I know Mexico and I know death in Mexico, and I will just say, your description of it is perfection. If I had never experienced any of this, I would be able to taste it, smell it, see it ….. touch it, feel it, it’s THAT good. Your writing is increasingly powerful.

  2. Wow, what a beautiful description of a “life cycle event”.
    Thanks Norma!
    Love Lynn

    • Thanks, Lynn! So glad you appreciate this! BTW, I’m organizing a textile tour to Morocco in April 2016. Tell Leslie. I hope to get Penland onboard again for this, so spread the word to Joan and Jane when you see them! Hugs.

  3. Norma, your words paint a picture so real, I thought I participated in the funeral myself. Thank you for sharing this unique experience, helping us be there with you.

  4. Hola Norma,

    Thanks for sending this beautiful description of “Death in the family” I shared it with Allison who was here for Father’s Day dinner. Tom is going to read it too. Your tenderness, caring , compassion and love of Mexico are a delight. Please keep sharing.

    Abrazos,
    Jo Ann

  5. Sensitive, eloquent and beautifully written. You had me right with you every breath of the way.

  6. Beautiful and heartfelt writing. Gracias, Norma

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