Tag Archives: cemetery

Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca: Day of the Dead Cemetery Before Dark

Before the crowds descend on the cemetery, before the tour buses and vans arrive, before the photographers with strobe flash and tripods begin their crawl among the gravesites at dusk, I arrive in Xoxocotlan.  Marta and Citlalli are with me today.


It is the perfect time, the magic hour between day and night, when there is a glow that illuminates the world.


Xoxocotlan on Halloween, the night before All Saint’s Day, has become a major party venue for Oaxaca visitors. By seven in the evening, the new cemetery will be packed with revelers who come dressed in costume, as well as families who sit reverently by the grave sites of their loved ones.

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I focus my visit on the old cemetery, Panteon San Sebastian, which continues to draw me back year after year. The space is small. An adobe chapel built in 1684 is now remnants, destroyed by earthquake. It’s ancient walls that still stand are cordoned off by plastic tape warning of peligroso, danger, caution. The tape is new this year. Who knows when the next earthquake will strike?

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Don’t step on the graves, Citlalli says. My grandmother told us if you do, the dead will grab your feet and drag you to the underworld at night.  We step carefully out of respect.  Some of the grave sites are ancient, unmarked, crumbling.

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Many tombs are marked with a date of death in the 1970’s. Citlali says there was a cholera epidemic then and many in Oaxaca died.


I ask Luis Conseco if I can take his photo. His face is interesting, weathered. He stands upright, squares his shoulders. He says he wants to go the the United States to work to make more money. It is a dream of many. He is sixty-eight years old.

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He tells us that the shape and form of the tombstones signify the wealth or poverty of the person buried beneath. There were many simple tombs made of flat brick. This is all people can afford, he says.


Things are changing in Xoxocotlan. The old cemetery is getting a facelift. There are men working on a new, paved entry way. The paths between the grave sites have been raked, leveled and cleared making passage easier, more visitor friendly. The outside walls are painted bright green.

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Locals, now used to having their photographs taken, look up in greeting. I still ask permission each time, though. And, it is fun to engage in conversation. Do you like visitors pointing cameras in your face? I ask. And, everyone laughs and beckon me closer!

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We even get an invitation to come into the ancient, crumbling walls of the old chapel where a man is decorating the grave of his grandfather. He takes us to the tomb of a Spanish priest resting behind a gated sanctuary.

Xoxocotlan2014  As we leave the cemetery, the groups begin to come in. I hire a moto-taxi tuk tuk to lead us out of town. The roads are starting to get clogged with in-coming visitors. It’s about six o’clock at night. Just in time to get back to Oaxaca for a dinner of enchiladas de jamaica (hibiscus flowers) at Restaurante San Pablo.

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But not before getting some last minute street shots before we leave. I decided to skip Atzompa. So many people, so little time! Welcome to Muertos.

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Portrait Photography Workshop coming up the end of January. There’s a space for YOU!




The Funeral of Arnulfo Mendoza

In the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle, there are hundreds of excellent weavers.  Few have gained the international recognition of Arnulfo Mendozo, owner of La Mano Magica gallery, and renown for his tapestry weaving skills and talent as a painter.  Arnulfo died from a sudden heart attack a few days ago, leaving behind a young wife and child.  He was fifty-nine.

imagenThe church is resplendent, filled with lilies, lit with massive beeswax candles adorned with wax birds and roses. On every dark wood pew, rubbed to a polish from years of use, are four or five people shoulder to shoulder, rising, kneeling, sitting, praying, singing. I steady myself. Hold the smooth wood of the seat back in front of me, feel the wood resonate and penetrate me as if it was Arnulfo speaking.  I am glad I do not have my camera.  Today, the space is sacred.

The hundred or so pews are filled with family and friends, distant relations, collectors from Puebla, Mexico City, Oaxaca, the U.S.A., and Canada, onlookers, paparazzi. Some straggle in just before the mass ends. Before me are red pony tails, black braids woven with dark blue ribbon, lowered heads covered in shawls with their intricately woven fringes swaying in rhythm to the a capella ring of bells.  The priest performs mass, sends Arnulfo’s spirit soaring.  For a moment, I go with him and then come back to here, now.  This prayer is for Suzie, too, as tears come. The man I sit with, another fine weaver I know, embraces me. The mass ends. We reach out and hold each person around us, moving from one to another in benediction.

Four men each carry a stanchion topped with a circle of encrusted white roses four feet in diameter.  As they leave the church altar, twelve pallbearers, six on each side, follow shouldering the ornate mahogany-colored wood casket decorated with etched copper where Arnulfo rests. Behind them are four more men bearing another four stanchions of rose circles.  Family members spill into the aisle with lit candles, armloads of fresh flowers, heads downcast.  I see that the village grandmothers carry flowers, too.

We assemble in the church courtyard.  I hug Arnulfo’s cousins and nieces, offer murmurs of condolence, and join the procession through the village streets to the cemetery.  The band is out front.  The tubas, clarinets, trombones, saxophones, drums alternate between dirge and dance.  I walk slowly, lagging, matching steps with Magdalena, half my height now, who buried a husband and son years before during the same year. Every several blocks, we stop, pray, give the pallbearers rest.  The sky darkens heavy with clouds on this late Sunday afternoon in southern Mexico.

Across from the cemetery entrance is the woman who usually sells snacks at the health clinic.  The ice cream vendor scoops, fills cones with burnt vanilla, angel kisses, hot pink nopal fruit. A woman silently offers bottled water for sale.  Inside, fresh flowers fill almost every urn. The grandmothers peel away from the procession as it enters sacred space and scatter to family graves. They begin to sweep away the leaves and debris, remove dried flowers and replace them with the fresh bundles they carry. The pallbearers stop under an ancient tree where the earth is soft and ready.  Copal incense wafts smoky and pungent.  If you get too close you will begin to cry.

The band forms a circle under the permanent awning.  There is a press of people around the gravesite. I hang back to leave space for the family. An ex-pat moves away from the edge of the grave, approaches me, asks me why they dig up the bones of Arnulfo’s father to place Arnulfo there. I explain about the ten-year cycle of using the same family plot, then ask how she knows Arnulfo.  “Oh, I read about it.  I took a group to the Tlacolula Market today and we decided to stop here, too.” she says.  “It’s time I find them and go.”

Someone is in the tree beside Arnulfo’s grave, taking photos, high above the rest of us, another ex-pat I recognize but don’t know.  He is hovering at the perfect vantage point, wears white. The band plays a waltz.  The ex-pat lowers himself from the tree, passes inches from me with no eye-contact, takes a few more steps, then pivots as the father-in-law of the deceased moves past me going in the other direction toward the grave.  They criss-cross in front of me. The father-in-law is from another country across the Pacific Ocean. They are both now steps away.  The ex-pat stops the older man, asks, “What will happen to all the things in the gallery?”  I say, “That’s not a question for today.” The father-in-law’s face scrunches up, his brows almost touch, he stares, then shrugs, doesn’t answer, turns, continues on. The man in white, says, You interrupted me, that was rude. He didn’t understand you, I say. I did, he says. That’s perfect, I say. He moves to another side of the cemetery, takes photos of people huddled on tombstones.

There is clapping.  Testimonials.  A thunderclap answers.  Human hands clap again. He was so young, I hear someone say. He was so talented, says another. That’s life, says a man I know who stops to greet me as I walk slowly away.

I think of Arnulfo. He looked so young, even at fifty-nine.  Smooth, chestnut skin, a few laugh lines, a shock of slightly receding pitch hair drawn into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, the contentment of fatherhood.  I remember him standing at the gallery doorway on Macedonio Alcala, he waves and smiles, I do the same, stop in, buy artist-imprinted T-shirts for my husband and son. His new wife packages them in tissue with gentleness.

I remember years ago when I first came here, in search of his fine tapestries, the shoulder bag with strands of gold and silver, woven into wool the color of nightfall, wet earth, blood, garnet, magic, climbing the hill to Casa Sagrada to find the kitchen where the family taught the secrets of Zapotec mole negro.

I think of Suzie, thirty-five, still in a coma.  Why did she get into this particular taxi that crashes into a concrete barrier at sixty miles per hour?  Yesterday, Kathryn and I talk about Suzie.  We remember her giddy filled-with-life laugh, how people light up when she enters a room.  Is it all about when our time comes, Kathryn asks?  You mean, is it predetermined, how and when?, I ask.  Yes, she says. No, I say. I think it is random, like when my son was held up at gun-point, averted his eyes, lived. Life happens in a moment. This is life, and to know and accept is all that matters.

After the funeral, I pick up Robin, whose daughter-in-law is scheduled for an emergency cesarean to deliver an early, underweight baby.  The risks are high. The baby is in stress. We drink white wine, wait for news.  The phone rings.  She begins to sob, then says to her husband on the other end, thank you, Grandpa.

Dia de Los Muertos–Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico–History and Traditions

Dia de los Muertos is a festive, joyous and religious celebration that is one of the most important in Mexico. Families honor the memory of their ancestors and the continuity of life with the belief that the souls of departed loved ones return to visit once a year. A blend of ancient indigenous and European Catholic traditions, Dia de los Muertos is not a time of mourning.  It is believed the practice began long before the Spanish conquest, perhaps as early as the Olmec civilization more than 3,000 years ago. Later cultures — the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs — adopted the early practices.   At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, the dominant Aztec celebration was held during the month of Miccailhitonitl presided over by the goddess of the same name (translated to Lady of the Dead).

Day of the Dead Photography Expedition 2011: Don’t miss it!

In an effort to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism, the church incorporated the Aztec celebration with All Saints’ Day and All Hallows Eve (Halloween).   In Oaxaca, the celebrations begin on October 31 and continue through November 2.  Preparations begin weeks in advance.  Although the skeleton is a predominant symbol for both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, the meaning is very different.  In Mexico, the skeleton (calavera) represents the dead playfully mimicking the living and not a macabre symbol at all.

Each Oaxaca village celebrates with parades and processions.  Families make an ofrenda or offering on the home altar and on gravesite.  In Xoxocotlan, the major celebration is at the cemetery on All Hallows Eve, the night of October 31. All Saints’ Day, November 1, is celebrated in San Augustin Etla and San Pablo Villa de Mitla.  In Teotitlan del Valle, the village celebrates at their cemetery on All Souls’ Day, November 2.  Throughout the city of Oaxaca there are calendas or processions throughout this several day period, including those with children dressed in costume.

The Ofrenda or Offering

Home altar rooms are the social center and spiritual hub of Zapotec households.  This is where the family gathers and greets relatives and friends for engagements, weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, and deaths.  Home altars are designed in a specific way to allow the spirits of ancestors to easily return to visit their living loved ones during Day of the Dead.  In addition, businesses, hotels, restaurants, churches, museums and offices will also prepare an altar to honor their dead and await their spirits.  Some altars will have a path of marigold flowers leading to it to help guide the way, depending upon family traditions.  Altars are decorated with the favorite foods and beverages of the deceased along with their photos.   Bread, chocolate, beer, mescal, a favorite soft drink, nuts and fruit, marigolds, sugar cane stalks, and skull shaped candies decorate the altar along with with the incense and candles. The aroma of fragrant flowers, copal incense, and the light of the candles are essential elements in helping the dead find their way back from the spirit world.

Visitors to Oaxaca homes in the city or in a village during this time should not go empty handed!  It is a courtesy to bring a loaf of pan muerto, chocolate, a bottle of mescal or a six-pack of beer.  The hospitality will be reciprocated: you will be offered hot chocolate, a slice of bread and a shot of mescal in true guelaguetza fashion.

The Xoxocotlan Cemetery is a frenzy crowds, candles, flowers, families picnicking, strolling musicians, local costumed revelers and a g-zillion visitors. The sun sets this time of year at around 7 p.m. and that’s when most people arrive.  Even then, it’s difficult to find a parking space and there is a taxi line-up going into town.  There are TWO cemeteries in Xoxo, and if you have time, be sure to see them both.  They are about six blocks apart.  The new cemetery is huge and that’s where the biggest party takes place.  At the entrance is a giant tent with a bandstand and chairs for the audience.  The music ranges from local bands with vocalists to symphony.  Lining the side streets are tented booths selling food and carnival trinkets.  The old cemetery is smaller and more serene.  The grave sites abut each other with few places to walk without stumbling over a candle or a cross.  At the center of this space is a crumbling, ancient church whose roof disappeared long ago.

In Oaxaca city, the Benito Juarez and Abastos Markets are filled with food, flowers, sugar and chocolate and sesame candy skulls, egg bread in various shapes decorated with painted heads of saints, mounds of cinnamon sticks, and fabled Oaxaca chocolate, plus whatever else you can imagine.  You could get lost in the flowers.

So, as we think about Day of the Dead, it is important to challenge our own cultural beliefs by understanding that death in Mexico is considered a positive part of the life cycle and a time for remembrance.

About Day of the Dead: What it is and isn’t!

  • It is not Halloween.  Mexicans have celebrated Day of the Dead for thousands of years.
  • It is not morbid; there are no pictures of dead people, ghosts, witches or devils.
  • It isn’t a cult.  It is a Catholic ritual blended with folk culture.
  • It honors dead relatives, but it does not dwell on death.  It celebrates life, cultural heritage, ancestors, and the meaning and purpose of our own life on earth.
  • Altars or ofrendas are not for ancestor worship, but for offering love and remembrance.
  • It is not a sad ritual, but a joyful one.
  • It is not about fear, but about love.
  • It is not “strange” and is like going to paying respects at a grave, leaving flowers, and lighting a candle.
  • It is not disrespectful; it is a reflection on the cycle of life.

Our ofrenda to you:  Visit Oaxaca and take part in our Day of the Dead Documentary Photography Expedition.

Countdown to Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

October 31–All Hallows Eve

Our family friend, Janet Chavez Santiago, tells us that we don’t want to miss being with them in the village of Teotitlan del Valle on October 31.  This is when the Zapotec villagers go to the local market to buy the fruits and special bread for the altar that is part of each family’s home.  Her brother Eric tells me that this market day in Teotitlan del Valle is one of the largest and most abundant of the year.

November 1–All Saints’ Day

Oaxacan Zapotecs believe that the souls of all their dead relatives will arrive in the altar room of their houses at 3:00 p.m.  So, the family gathers there, eat tamales together, light candles and welcome the spiritual return of their loved ones.  At 5:00 p.m. after the special comida, the practice is to visit the houses of their relatives to pay respects to the souls of the extended family members who have passed.  Janet says that many family visitors come to their house, too, bringing gifts for the altar that include some of the favorite foods of the dead.

November 2–All Souls’ Day

Everyone stays home to rest, to visit more, and to be with the spirits of the dead relatives.  At 3:00 p.m. the souls return to the cemetery and there is a family procession to the graveyard to accompany the souls as they re-enter the graves.  Family members sit by the grave side in solitude and reflection in this village.  The ceremony here is very low-key compared to Xoxocotlan.