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.
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.
- Day of the Dead 2015 Photography Workshop starts October 30.
- Women’s Creative Writing & Yoga Retreat starts March 4, 2016. We have 2 spaces open.
Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Guiding the Disfuntos Home
The bells in the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca church tower start ringing on November 1 at 3:00 p.m. and continue all night and into the next day, November 2, giving the disfuntos (the visiting souls) the sound to follow home.
They follow the trail of scent, sight and sound: marigold flowers, copal incense, simmering mole negro, chocolate, candlelight, mezcal, bread, music, bells. Home to visit loved ones who are still here on earth.
This 24-hour period is sacred and solemn. It is also festive and joyful. Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is more than an all night party (as it has become for some). It is a time to reconnect emotionally and spiritually with departed family members and friends.
The 3:00 p.m. comida on November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle signals the moment when the disfuntos will take their favorite meal and then begin their return to the grave. Janet brings a plate of chicken with mole negro to the altar, her grandfather Jose’s favorite food. Bien rico!
The firecrackers or cohetes go off exactly at 3:00 p.m., too. At this moment, Dolores approaches the altar and says a prayer before the photograph of her mother, who died too young.
We raise our mezcal glasses in a Zapotec toast — chee-chee-bay-oh — salud, to health and long life. The CD player starts and music fills the altar room. Federico says this tune, Dios Nunca Muere — God never dies — is always played to guide the difuntos. It soothes them. Federico says it is played just after a person dies and at gravesite before the burial. It is the song to signal the end of each Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle. It is a song about the pain of the homeless.
Do you have an altar? he asks me.
Yes, I say. It’s for our father. There are all the pre-requisites: fruit, nuts, bread, chocolate, mezcal, marigolds, beer and candles. (There are no religious symbols.)
Good, he says. Even though your father is buried in the United States, he will come to visit you here. The ancient souls who were buried in the campo many years ago are also happy they have a place to return to. It’s good you have an altar, he says.
Who am I to say what is or isn’t true? Memory and continuity are powerful and life is a mystery.
The tombs contain the bones of past ancestors. See the photo above left. There are four grave markers. That means there are four family members who are buried in this tomb. This is an ancient Zapotec tradition that continues today.
I go to the cemetery an hour before dark to capture the last light of day. I don’t think the Panteon has ever been as beautiful. Fresh flowers, fruit and nuts decorate the tombs. Families begin to gather and sit with loved ones as they return to the underworld. They nibble on snacks and drink beer and mezcal.
The volunteer cemetery committee meets in the chapel and chants an ancient Zapotec song, mournful. It permeates, carries through the small graveyard. A wind picks up. The disfuntos are gathering to return.
Visitors come with cameras, accompanied by tour guides. They are respectful of this space. They are prepared well. There are many more this year than last. Locals say this is good for Teotitlan del Valle. People will come and know our culture. They will appreciate the fine wool tapestries we weave here. Ojala!
Each gravesite is an altar of love and respect for those who came before. All generations take part. Sometimes children bring games or a book to read until the light fades. Everyone sits, some all night, to assure their loved ones rest easy.
Many religious and spiritual traditions have a day of remembrance set aside to honor the deceased. We light candles. We say prayers. We may read a poem or meditate. We connect with the person who is physically gone from our lives. I don’t know of a warmer, more personal and family centric celebration of life and death than Day of the Dead. It helps soothe the fear of loss with the hopefulness of reconnection.
Zapotec people tell me that what they practice is a blend of Catholicism and ancient ritual that pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Zapotecs are more inclined toward their spiritual roots. Want to know more? See meaning of syncretism. Most of the celebrations here take place at home rather than in the church, except for marriage and baptism.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexico, Photography, Teotitlan del Valle, Travel & Tourism
Tagged cemetery, day of the dead, dia de los muertos, Mexico, Oaxaca, rituals, syncretism, Teotitlan del Valle, traditions, Zapotecs