Tri-City Herald, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2003

A Matter of Life and Death

©2003 Valerie Kreutzer

Mexico's Day of Death is a Lively Affair.

Gravesite in Tzintzuntzan, Mexico

As dusk settles over the cemetery of Tzintzuntzan, candles illuminate mountains of marigolds on graves where families have gathered to await the visit of their loved ones.

For Day of the Dead at the beginning of November, thousands of relatives and visitors flock to Michoacan State in the west of Mexico.  Here, the locals say, the veil between the living and the dead is especially thin and briefly lifts to welcome the dead home.

Graves that have been neglected all year are cleaned and lavishly decorated with candles, fuchsia, red cockscomb and the ubiquitous marigolds.

“This is my son,” says an elderly man, pointing to a photo of a business executive.  It is attached to a scaffold covered with marigolds, erected at the head of the grave.  The father and a dozen relatives are settling in for a long, cold night, huddled in blankets.  Covered dishes with favorite foods sit on the grave; a bottle of tequila completes the display.  He obviously enjoyed a good time, this dead son, and his family prepares to welcome him with a lavish fiesta.  I join their vigil for a while.

Next, I sit with a grandmother and her offspring.  “My brother-in-law,” says the grandmother, pointing to the cross that lists 1976 as the year of his death.  Her youngest grandchild busily re-lights candles blown out by the evening breeze. 

“De donde esta (where are you from),” asks her older brother.

“Seattle,” I tell him.

“WA-SHING-TON!” he exclaims.  And lets his mother tell me that the whole family once lived in Everett—how amazing!  Now they’re back in Tzintzuntzan, named after the sound made by hummingbirds.

As I move among the graves and families I feel deeply touched by the outpouring of love that surrounds me.  This communal commemoration of the dead is somber and cheerful at the same time and so different from the lonely visits I’ve made to my daughter’s gravesite in Florida.  My Maria recently died in a car crash.  How much easier it would be, I realize, to sit by her grave surrounded by an extended family, welcoming her spirit into our midst.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead commemorations date back to ancient festivals at the end of August, when the dead were invited to participate in harvest feasts. The conquering Spanish priests considered these traditions pagan and moved the festivities to coincide with the holy days of All Souls and All Saints in November.

Dia de los Muertos extends over two days.  November 1 honors newborns who go straight to heaven since they are deemed to be without sin.  November 2, the more important day, commemorates older children and adults. 

I had read about these celebrations, and spurred by my own need for ritual commemoration, I gladly accepted a friend’s invitation last year to join her on the outing to Michoacan.

My friend Marlene Johansing who lives in San Miguel, Mexico, made trip arrangements already in March (it’s important to book early) and also invited some California friends.  At the end of October, our sisterhood of six assembled in San Miguel and then piled into Marlene’s huge blue 79 Chevy Suburban and set out on the four-hour trip to Patzcuaro, the capital of Michoacan and one of Mexico’s colonial jewels.

As we careened through the lush countryside of forested mountains, green plains, abundant rivers and lakes, Marlene kept us on edge with breakdown stories of her beat-up and dented “blue bomb.”  We sighed with relief when we arrived safely at Victoria’s B&B, one of the magnificent old mansions, right off Patzcuaro’s main square.

Our hostess, an American artist, has furnished her restored colonial with exquisite art, antiques and local crafts.  She had also secured the help of Miguel Angel Nunez, an anthropologist, who was part of our four-day package deal.  After supper Miguel briefed us on the history and customs of Michoacan, the land that belonged to the Tarascan people before Spanish occupation.

The Tarascan Empire was strong and prosperous and had withstood the conquest of the powerful Aztecs.  The next day we toured Las Yacatas, the ceremonial center where stony remains above Tzintzuntzan testify to powerful rulers between 1200 BC and 1512 AD. 

Despite peacefully submitting to the arriving Spaniards, the Tarascan population was nearly wiped out by the cruel Nuno de Guzman. 

Peace was restored by the Franciscans and by Vasco de Quiroga who arrived from Spain in 1533 and became the first bishop of Michoacan. 

Don Vasco is a great regional hero.  He was a contemporary and admirer of Thomas More and tried to establish models of egalitarian communities, according to the ideas the English philosopher presented in his book Utopia.  Don Vasco built schools and hospitals and brought artisans from Spain to teach crafts and trade. 

To this day, Patzcuaro is surrounded by a wealth of villages famous for different forms of crafts, from copperware and carved masks, to furniture and textiles.  Miguel took us to several of these villages, and Marlene’s sisterhood returned with evermore bulging shopping bags.

Shopping sprees aside, we focused on Dia de los Muertos celebrations that involve every Mexican household, as we discovered on a tour of Patzcuaro’s stately mansions.  Every home had an ofrenda (altar) dedicated to the family’s dead loved ones.  The altars were decorated with photos, flowers, candles, favorite foods and drink of the departed.  Many public places, such as theatres, libraries, and offices also display  ofrendas.  Candy skulls and skeletons add whimsy to the altars.

No Day of the Dead celebration is complete without these skeletons.  They can be dressed in tuxedo and top hat, or in long gowns and finery, all showing their bony visage with a cheeky grin.  In Mexico, death is transformed from a cult into a macabre but humorous spectacle.

That honky-tonk spirit also prevailed in the area adjacent to Tzintzuntzan’s cemetery.  Drummers drummed, bands screeched, and dancers danced with abandon. We moved with the crowds and breathed the aroma of intoxication, ate chunks of the sweet day of the dead bread, had a beer or two but were ready to leave when Miguel suggested moving on.   

At the cemetery in Ihuatzio, boom boxes on graves at opposing sides blared music in loud competition.  The uneven terrain, barely lit by flickering candles, made us stumble between graves.

“I think I know someone here,” said Marlene and led me to Arturo.  Five years earlier, Marlene had met him bending in a stupor over the new grave of his wife Magdalena.  When Marlene looked closely, she saw four children lying on the grave, covered by a blanket.  The youngest was a baby.

“That’s the baby,” said Arturo with a smile, pointing to his six-year-old.  Arturo was still single but seemed to do a fine job raising his four children.  He was working as a waiter in Morelia, the nearest large city.  The family had arrived late in the village and Magdalena’s grave was sparsely decorated. 

“For your family,” said Marlene, handing Arturo her last pesos.  He passed them on to his oldest daughter.  “Gracias, senora,” she curtsied.  “I wish I could have given him more,” said Marlene, as we walked away.  It was past midnight and our pockets were empty after distributing pesos to the large number of trick-or-treating children.  “They know about Halloween from American TV,” Miguel had explained with a shrug.

As we drove on dirt roads along Patzcuaro Lake, we spotted islands of light in the pitch dark. There are 125 villages around the lake and the less accessible attract fewer tourists.

There were hardly any in Cucuchuchu, a poor farming village of two thousand.  But their cemetery was the most dignified and festive, showing the kind of harmonious egalitarianism that would have delighted Don Vasco.  All graves were lit with the tall, white hand-dipped candles, fresh flowers were abundant but not lavish, foods on the graves were covered with embroidered cloths, and women wore festive native outfits. 

We arrived just in time to watch musicians march to a fresh grave.  The fiddlers were followed by relatives who carried babies and food.  “They’re serenading the spirit of a person who recently died,” explained Miguel.

For a while I settled next to a man and woman who faced each other across a grave.  “My wife,” said the man, pointing to the grave.  “She was my best friend,” added the woman, now his wife.  “She is not dead,” explained the man, “she is asleep.”

He expressed the deep-seated belief that death isn’t final as long as someone remembers you.  On Dia de los Muertos, Mexicans affirm this belief.  The rituals and creed have little in common with the Catholic Church, Miguel kept telling us.  But at seven in the morning, the priest would come for a short mass and then the feasting would begin.  Eventually, everyone would stumble home and go to bed. 

That’s where we were headed at three in the morning.

Before falling asleep, I wondered how I could transplant some of these festivities to Florida on my next visit to my daughter’s grave.  Maria is buried next to David, her boyfriend, who drove the car in the fatal crash.

Perhaps we could assemble the extended family and spread a blanket for a picnic.  Would David’s parents care for such a cemetery party?

They did.  And two weeks later, on the second anniversary of our children’s death, we took roses and candles to their graves in Zephyrhills, spread a blanket, had some finger food and Maria’s favorite cookies, and shared memories of our children.  We cried and laughed a little and when we walked away, we had the feeling that Maria and David would have liked the party.  Perhaps we’ll make it an annual event.