SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- The town of San Cristobal was dead on November 4, 2010. This was to be a day of festivities, I expected parades, people dressed in skeleton outfits, ghouls, skulls, and all of the other visual representations of death, for this was Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead. I knew that this was to be a major holiday, and I rushed out into the streets to see what was going on.
I found: Nothing.
Then it struck me, I was in a city of the living, and this was the Day of the Dead.
I went to the municipal cemetery.
I found the city, partying.
Thousands of people were entering and exiting the cemetery gates, dozens of fast food and beer stalls were set up, there was music, excitement, people running, laughing, crying. On Day of the Dead, the people of Mexico spend time with their deceased relatives, and places of death teem with life.
Entire families visit the cemetery plots of their relatives, often bringing with them picnic lunches, refreshments, and lots of beer. They are also said to bring some of the deceased’s favorite foods as an offering. Walking through the crowded municipal cemetery of San Cristobal de las Casas the mood was bitter sweet: some people were laughing and joking, drinking lots of beer, while others were sitting quietly on the graves of their departed ones, with hands folded over their knees and eyes glassed over with repressed tears. Their is almost a surreal feel to this holiday as these two very different groups of celebrators concurrently interact and mix with each other. This is a party with two distinct moods: celebration and joy mixed with sadness, the bitter-sweetness of remembrance.
Day of the dead is a three day celebration in Mexico dedicated to spending time with deceased family members and loved ones. Alters are set up before and within many homes with photos of departed relatives placed upon them with grass clippings, flowers, and material items that the dead were remembered to have enjoyed in life. For the two days of this holiday, the living attempt to commune with the dead through visiting the burial places, telling old stories, being with their families, and allowing their departed ones to live on through memories, deeds, and stories..
The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed. –Day of the Dead, Wikipedia
In Mexico, on Day of the Dead, I recognized the attributes of a culture that is a little closer to the dead than their neighbors further north. The same cemetery that I visited on Dia de los Muertos was bombed by the Mexican military in an attack on the Zapatistas during their uprising in 1994. It was reported to me that there was a drastic outcry from the people in the city, in the newspapers it was written, “Many dead have been wounded.”
Videos of Day of the Dead
This first video shows a walk through the municipal cemetery of San Cristobal de las Casas on Day of the Dead.
This video is of a group of Argentinian travelers playing music around the grave plots of a family. Notice the dancing and the feel of celebration as the people rejoice and party with their departed family members.
There were other groups of musicians that went around playing music for the various gatherings in the cemetery. It is my impression that the family pays the musicians to play a few songs for their deceased members on this day where the living interact and party with the dead.