Rooted in pre-Hispanic indigenous religious and spiritual practices that has nothing to do with the Catholicism imported to Mexico by the Conquistadores and attending priests, unfortunately, Day of the Dead has morphed into what is becoming an attraction for party-goers in Oaxaca. Day of the Dead is coming back around on the calendar, observed from October 31 to November 2, and it’s time to write about What is Day of the Dead? for visitors and travelers. I want to plead for respectfulness for ancient cultural practices. These are the days to remember the ancestors.
These dates were set by the conquerors to blend the pre-Hispanic native rituals to remember those who have passed with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days on the Christian calendar. The blending of European and indigenous practices is called syncretism and was an effective way of bringing indigenous people into the religious fold of the conquerors.
Let’s take a step back. Up the road from where I live in Oaxaca, the Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site (and village) San Pablo Villa de Mitla was the burial grounds for the ruling elite. Originally called Mictlan, which means place of the dead, the reverence for the ancestors was played out with offerings of candles, incense, bread, corn and squash, pulque, chocolate and flowers, mostly wild marigold that grew in the countryside. Elaborate altars were constructed on floor-level that included these offerings. With the conquest, the altars were raised and included a backdrop of Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, in many traditional homes we visit, the altar is placed on the ground as it was in ancient days. Around the altar, family members sit with their memories in quiet contemplation as the candles burn and the incense is constantly replenished.
In ancient times, family members were buried in tombs inside each home. With Catholicism, cemeteries became the place where the deceased were interred. Yet, the tradition of respect, reverence and solemn tribute to a loved one’s memory continued. In the 18 years I have lived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I have come to understand how important Day of the Dead is to the collective, family and individual memory of a loved one who has crossed over. I have sat quietly with friends at their family plots as they recall the life of the person buried there. Often, these plots will hold the bones of generations of family members, as the plot is recycled every ten years, the time it takes for a body to decompose. The grave is cleaned and the bones replaced there, readying it for the next occupant.
This is how we do it here.
In the last two years, all this has changed. Foreign visitors arrive on tour buses with painted faces and in Halloween costume. (Did you know that Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the USA next to Christmas?) They bring mezcal, beer and a picnic into the cemeteries. They gawk. They dance to the music the village band is playing to cheer the local community. It is party-time in Oaxaca regardless of local custom, and these external influences are changing local behavior.
I’m not one to say, Let’s keep everything the way it was. Change is inevitable and there has always been cultural interchange, innovation and adaptation. Yet, what I see I interpret as destructive. Locals are going earlier in the day to decorate the graves and then leave the cemetery before the crowd of visitors arrive. They prefer the peacefulness and solitude that marks this ritual. A few locals say, It’s good for business to have visitors. But, no one, in my opinion, who comes to the cemetery to party is going to buy a handwoven rug that may cost hundreds of dollars! They come to take away only an experience.
I often wonder if any of the guides who bring visitors has a conversation with them about cultural history and respectfulness, as we do when we bring people to the cemetery. When we take a small group we always go accompanied by a local friend who will take us to a family gravesite, sit with us, and explain the practices.
Oaxaca is now an international destination. It is attracting visitors who want to sample mezcal, dine in world renown restaurants, and immerse themselves in the excitement of the Day of the Dead comparsas — the parades — in Oaxaca city. The film Coco did much to popularize Day of the Dead, and I hear from friends in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the Coco story originated, that in the artisan villages surrounding the lake, Purepecha people have adapted and adopted the face painting and costumes to attract tourism.
When you visit, please be aware that you will leave a footprint. What kind of footprint do you want to have? What will you learn and what will you take away from participating in this ancient practice? How will you reflect on death and dying, and compare it to how mourning and remembrance is done in Mexico with where you come from? What are your own family traditions?
And, how would you respect your own grandparents and antecedents in the cemetery where they are buried?