How Mexico's Day of the Dead helped this writer make peace with the Grim Reaper
Skulls, graveyards, painted faces, and costumes galore; while the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos or 'Day of the Dead' shares some classic Halloween hallmarks — along with Calendar space — its spirit couldn't be further removed from the terror of its western counterpart. As The Travel Hop's Paul Ewart discovered. In fact, attending the annual event in Mexico helped him make peace with death...
Darkness settles over the gravestones, and the light from hundreds of bright orange candles, bathes the old, stonewalled cemetery in a flickering glow.
The annual Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos is a visual feast
My gaze is drawn to a solitary old woman kneeling by a tombstone. Head covered in a thick scarf, she’s weeping over a freshly decorated grave festooned with marigold flowers. Atop of the rearranged earth is a framed photo of a smiling elderly man, next to this is a full packet of cigarettes alongside a plate of tortillas and beans. Surmising the picture is of her late husband, I feel guilty at being a voyeur to such an intimate moment, but I can’t look away. Turns out, she’s not the only late night visitor shedding tears. In fact, within this weatherworn graveyard in the sleepy islands of Lake Patzcuaro, in Mexico’s central state of Michoacan, the full gamut of human emotions are on display.
Day of the Dead is the highlight on Mexico’s religious and cultural calendar
In one corner two men (brothers, I later discover) are toasting their late-father over his grave with a bottle of tequila, smiling as they retell stories of their beloved dad; in another area, a large family sit on picnic chairs, laughing and joking, as they pass plates of food around, all the while one of their number strums a guitar.
This is Day of the Dead. The highlight in Mexico’s religious and cultural calendar, the annual festival has roots that stretching back some 3,000 years to the Aztecs. And despite being later fused with the Catholic All Souls Day, the Aztec’s strong reverence for death, and belief in the dead returning to earth, has survived to this day.
Day of the Dead may share calendar space with Halloween but skulls aside it's very different
Taking place on November 1, Day of the Dead may share calendar space with Halloween, but aside from skull decorations and graveyards, the two holidays have very little in common. Rather than fearing witches and ghouls, in Mexico families welcome the spirits of their loved ones by preparing their favourite foods, cleaning their tombs and holding all-night graveside vigils.
In the cemetery I’m in, there’s an almost raucous atmosphere. And as the night progresses - and more local moonshine is imbibed - the music and the chatter gets louder. To all intents and purposes it’s a party, albeit a party where the honoured guests are all dead.
Death and dancing - the celebration of death during Mexico's annual Day of the Dead
Death and revelry may seem like strange bedfellows, but when you think about it, it makes total sense. In the west we tend to view death as some horror that needs to be buried (pun intended!). In Mexico, there’s no such avoidance - communities band together to remember the dead, and to come to terms with their own mortality. While we sweep death under the proverbial rug, here it’s paraded and celebrated.
During Mexico's Day of the Dead communities band together to remember loved ones
As the nearby church clock ticks past two in the morning, I take one last look before taking my leave. Families remain huddled around graves laughing, and drinking, eking out every last second in the company of the silent spirits of their dearly departed.
Walking away, I ponder the profound realisations that have hit me over the last few hours. I realise that there’s liberation in knowing that the clock is ticking; that we only have a finite number of precious days. So, the sooner we make peace with the Grim Reaper and realise the fragility of life, the sooner we are freed up to live more joyfully and in the moment. It’s a reality check that I reckon most of us need.