Day of the Dead: Honoring Loved Ones at Grave Sites

The photography exhibit that continues through November 6, 2012 at Duke University includes text panels that describe what happens during Day of the Dead.  The explanation below is written by Jenny Snead Williams, executive director of Duke’s Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South.

Bringing flowers for the grave. Copyright Norma Hawthorne 2012.

Cleaning and decorating the grave sites takes place over several days, with fresh flowers, food, and beverage carried into the cemeteries in loads (and sometimes in whole-village processions) on the days of November 1st and 2nd.  Some sites are simply adorned with fruit, nuts, and a few candles; others are covered in flowers and candles, with vases of tall stalks and freshly picked marigold petals strewn about, many displaying photos of deceased loved ones.  The preparation time is both reflective (particularly on November 1st for the deceased children or for newly deceased adults) and celebratory, with a focus on remembering the dead and providing a reunion place that is appealing to the departed spirits.

Cemetery at dusk, Teotitlan del Valle. Copyright Norma Hawthorne 2012.

As dusk falls, family members of all ages join for an all-night vigil, with a festive atmosphere in the cemetery.  Compared to home altars, the cemetery gatherings are more public and social in nature. Everyone partakes in the long-awaited holiday food and beverage, children play, and adults visit.  Music, ranging from full-scale orchestras to small serenades, fills the air.

Village orchestra adds music to the air. Copyright Norma Hawthorne 2012.

Traditions, music, and dance vary from town to town, but in general, people pay their respects and tell stories of loved ones.  Young couples parade through the cemeteries in bride-and-groom costumes.  Nowadays, elements of Halloween are often on display, with a jack-o-lantern or Halloween mask making an appearance among the more traditional elements.

The Days of the Dead photography exhibit continues at Duke’s East Campus, Friedl Building, Jameson Gallery until November 6, 2012.  Jenny participated in our 2011 Day of the Dead Photography Expedition. The 2012 program is sold out.  Contact Norma Hawthorne to get on the notification list for 2013.

Winter in Oaxaca, the streets are alive with music, art, glorious color, parades, musicians and more. Come to Oaxaca January 16 for Street Photography Workshop with Frank Hunter.


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