During the Night of November 1-2 is Noche de los Muertos. In central Mexico’s state of Michoacan, local residents of towns around lake Pátzcuaro with fun-to-pronounce ancestral Tarascan names like Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio, and Chucuchucho, take their Day of the Dead traditions very seriously. With great curiosity I joined their annual pilgrimage to nearby cemeteries for all-night vigils in order to honor departed souls. Driving from village to village throughout the night, I was continuously impressed how literally every cemetery in the region was set aglow by thousands of candles, illuminating everywhere the marigold-laden altars carefully erected by living relatives and loved ones of the dead. In some locations the cemeteries were hidden and intimate, while in others they stretched adjacent to town cathedrals and crowded craft markets with live music and countless vendors offering an incredible variety of Mexican street food favorites. Wide-eyed and spellbound I indulged in taking night-time photos, while keeping myself warm by drinking homemade steaming-hot fruit punch prepared and sold everywhere by local Mexican grandmothers. It all went down so well mixed with tequila…
One of the cemeteries still fresh in my mind was a rather tiny one, located on the hill top of Isla de la Pacanda – a small island in the middle of lake Pátzcuaro, which is accessible by boat and populated by only about 200 people from the same 20 families who had probably lived there forever. Gliding through the night across black water toward shimmering lights of the island in the distance, all the while listening to onboard musical score in the form of melodic indigenous Purapecha songs, I thought about how peaceful and appropriate the local attitude towards death was, how devoid of fear, and how radiant of some kind of pure magic… Instead of focusing on emotionally negative outcomes of loss and mourning, the purpose of this holiday was clearly intended to celebrate aspects of death experience that transcend sorrow. By bringing the deceased food and personal items they favored during lifetime, by spending time with them graveside, the local traditions center around honoring personal legacy of the deceased as something that remains alive and present in the living as a result of the gifts of influence the dead had left behind. To see death from this perspective and to be able to relate to the significance of local people’s intimate relationship with it, is to understand the spiritual and transformative power lying at the root of Mexican culture.
I will conclude the second installment of my Day of the Dead photo-story with these beautiful words by Octavio Paz:
“The word Death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with Death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”
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