Tag Archives: death

Preparing for Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is coming soon. Festivities in Oaxaca will begin in the next few days, and people are now gathering what they need for home altars to honor their deceased loved ones:

  • palm branches to create an arch over the altar through which loved ones pass from the otherworld — a gateway to now
  • smokey copal incense that provides the aroma to guide the way
  • candles that burn continuously to offer light along the journey
  • fresh flowers, especially marigolds, a seasonal offering with a pungent aroma to guide the spirits
Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

  • bread, chocolate, fruit and nuts for the spirit visitors to eat
  • favorite beverages of those who have passed on and will return: hot chocolate, beer, mezcal, whiskey, coca-cola, Fanta orange, atole
  • framed photographs of those who have died (it wasn’t until the 70’s or 80’s, I’m told, that most locals had cameras to capture images)

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

 

Oaxaca street parades will start on October 30.

On October 31, the Xoxocotlan panteon (cemetery) will host locals and tourists who come from around the world to experience the reverie and revelry of Muertos. I like to start at the old cemetery around mid-afternoon to be present at the magic hour of sunset.

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

On November 1, there are many cemetery festivities, at San Pablo Villa de Mitla in the morning and in the evening at the Oaxaca city Panteon, and in San Augustin Etla.

On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, the low-key ceremonies of honoring the dead begin with a mid-afternoon meal at home to ensure the dead return to their graves with full bellies. The villagers then accompany the spirits to the the cemetery (around 6 p.m. ) and sit with them through the night to be certain they are cared for and rest in peace.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

On November 3, in San Antonino Castillo de Velasco, the flower growing village, holds their Day of the Dead celebrations after they have cut and sold cockscomb, marigolds, lilies and more to surrounding villages and city dwellers.

You might also want to add Santa Maria Atzompa to your itinerary.

Sand paintings, part of the tradition,  Muertos

Sand paintings, part of the tradition, Muertos

These are not created as tourist attractions but exist as part of ancient pre-Hispanic ritual in many parts of Mexico. Oaxaca has one of the most vibrant Day of the Dead celebrations.

Locals and seasoned Oaxaca travelers continue the search for the undiscovered Day of the Dead celebration where few tourists descend. The farther from the city, the more likely this is to occur.

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

Still life with marigolds, Teotitlan del Valle market

I’m in North Carolina with my friend Hettie, and have with me photos of my parents and copal incense. I’ll start making my memory altar in the next few days. Meanwhile, my Teotitlan del Valle family will light incense and place marigolds at the gate to my home to welcome the spirits and guide them back under the shadow of Picacho.

 See Day of the Dead 5-Day Photo Challenge at Facebook

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

Muertos altar, November 2, 2015, remembering my dad

After I built my altar last year, our 99-1/2 year-old mom took a downward turn and I left Oaxaca for California. She died on November 15, 2016. I return to California next week to join my family to lay the headstone on her grave just before the anniversary of her death, a ritual that is part of my religious tradition.

This year, my altar will hold them both. I will sit and honor their lives.

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

Dorothy Schafitz Beerstein, April 16, 2013

 

 

 

Giving Thanks and Remembering: Happy Thanksgiving to All

In Mexico we say, gracias, thank you. We give thanks for el día de acción de gracias, which is how our Oaxaca friends greet us.  May your day with family and friends be stuffed with turkey, gratitude, peace, laughter and remembrance for those who came before you to give you life, wherever you are.

Guajolote

I hope whatever you choose to eat — guajolote, turkey, turducken or tofucken — be delicious and abundant. An abundant life is a blessing to appreciate and to help give to others.

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Our mom was buried a week ago in Santa Cruz, California. She died peacefully on November 15, three months before her 100th birthday. Her life was long and meaningful. We are missing her. Today we celebrate and remember.

RustyDoor

Today we will give special thanks for her life and ours.  Listen to I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me by Grammy Award-winning Cantor Doug Cotler. We will share memories, look at photos, play Scrabble — our mom’s favorite game, and how she honed her amazing vocabulary and helped us develop ours.  In the last six months she taught us the word risible and used it frequently. We all laughed.

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I am here with my son, sister, brother and brother-in-law. This last gift from our mother was to bring us together for Thanksgiving, a first for all of us.

WildMarigolds

In the past weeks as I was with our mom, helping her, my sister and brother to ease her to end of life, I realized how important it is to be in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. It was even more meaningful this year as I prepared to make the journey to California knowing what would come.

Cactus

As I was with my mother as she made her journey, I realized this was another gift she gave me — how to leave us at peace and with dignity.

Mom

I was raised in a home where science was truth and mysticism was for the ultra-religious. Concrete proof was required to test all beliefs. Things change. I have learned from the Zapotecs who embrace the spirit world and blend it into a continuum of life and death. For me now, the ethereal is more acceptable than the concrete. Someone I knew once said, the dead don’t care. I believe they do. To know that they care is to acknowledge that we cared about and loved them.

MasaMetate

Now, I have a different experience and I’m inclined to believe that our parent’s molecules are mingled with earth and sky, that the soul, the spirit, the essense of their being and those of our ancestors are with me forever. There is much I do not know about life and death.  Life is a mystery and death a destination.

I know that I will visit my mother and she will visit me each year when I build a memory altar with food, copal, candles and a sense of  life as mystery. But this won’t be the only time either.

Candlesmoke

I am thinking of creating a Day of the Dead memory and rituals program next year to examine the way Mexico honors and remembers the deceased. I want to contrast this with how we approach death and dying in the El Norte culture. If you like this idea, please let me know!

bougambiliasflowers

The Children: Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

Children fully take part in Day of the Dead here in Oaxaca, Mexico, too. They are an important part of the ritual and celebration. They go with family members to sit vigil by grave sites regardless of age. Death is an integral part of life here and not to be feared.

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On October 30 a children’s procession is held along the Andador Macedonio Alcala to honor the souls of the young ones who left this world too soon. Count Dracula and La Calavera Catrina are popular figures for costumes.

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I came across a group of five-year olds, their parents and grandparents, assembled in a city square waiting for the procession to begin. They were all from the same class at the same school.

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One grandparent made certain to tell me that they made the little one’s costume all from crepe paper. It was very elegant and disposable.

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Some of the costumes are handmade.  Others are store-bought and similar to what we might see on Halloween in the USA.

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Without a doubt, watching the children is a real treat and part of the allure of being here in Oaxaca on Day of the Dead. And, doesn’t this one say it all!

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.