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Published: November 14th 2012
A Night In the Cemetery
A lady lights a candle in preparation for an all night vigil for Day of the Dead at San Felipe del Agua Cemetery.
Day of the Dead
After visiting markets and seeing all the preparations for Day of the Dead, I was ready to experience it for myself. The primary festivities kicked off on the night of October 31st,
where thousands of people made their way to Xoxocotlan cemetery about five miles south of the Oaxaca city center.
Day of the Dead takes place over two days. On November 1st
it is said that the spirits of the children return until the evening of November 1, after which the spirits of the adults return until the afternoon of November 2nd
. There are variances depending on location and many small towns celebrate after November 2nd
. In the Catholic religion these two days coincide with All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Day of the Dead also has heavy Aztec and other indigenous influences.
Day of the Dead celebrations consist of cemetery visits, costume parades, and crazy night life. The cemetery visits were my favorite part, and it is at the cemeteries where tradition is strongest. Throughout the days and evenings families bring Marigold and Cockscomb flowers to be placed on the graves of their loved ones.
They also bring candy sugar skulls (Calaveras de azucar), foods, drinks including beer and mescal, candles, photos, and skeletal figures performing activities. The flowers and candles are placed in intricate displays that help assist the dead in finding their way back to Earth. The food, candy, drinks, and other items are displayed on the tombs for their deceased loved ones to enjoy once they return. These are known as “La Ofrenda” or the offering. Other items like photos and skeletal figures are displayed in order to tell about the deceased. The skeletal figures are always shown performing some hobby (like fishing) that their loved ones enjoyed while on Earth.
Families usually spend all night at the gravesites eating, drinking, and telling stories. Outside the cemeteries there are food vendors and make-shift bars and the atmosphere is even more celebratory. Celebrating death may seem strange to people from the United States but in Mexico it is not a somber occasion.
After stepping out of a taxi around nine at night in an outskirt village of Oaxaca, I was taken aback by the amount of people in the streets. The taxi could only
get us but so close to the old cemetery entrance so we walked a block through huge crowds of people and past dozens of food stands and ice cream vendors. Once we arrived at the gate to the cemetery it was striking just how bright everything appeared because of the candlelight.
Xoxocotlan Cemetery is divided into the old cemetery and the new cemetery. Both of the cemeteries, like most Mexican cemeteries, are walled in by a huge stone or concrete wall with only one or two entrances. The two cemeteries are separated by about a 1/3 mile distance that is filled with festivities. While the new cemetery has more expensive decorations it is nowhere near as surreal as the old cemetery.
Everything at Xoxo’s old cemetery took on a mystical appearance and I felt like I could feel myself walking among thousands of spirits. Even though the old cemetery is very small, there are still quieter areas in the back of the cemetery where tourists and camera flashes are fewer. Besides the candles, another surreal feature was an old, roofless, and crumbling church at the center of the cemetery.
I probably spent two hours at
One Happy Man
This photo was taken at Xoxo Cemetery. The man was not smiling for my camera, it just so happened he turned with a smile right when I was taking the photo
the cemetery with a girl from New Zealand named Paula. I met her at my hostel and she was finishing up a backpacking trip that began in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That would be like my dream trip and she told me about her favorite countries (Colombia and Bolivia). Anyways, we decided to bring marigold flowers to the cemetery so we could place them on graves that had no decorations. We were basically the most non-touristy tourists at the cemetery until we took out our cameras and tried to snap photos of us placing the flowers on graves. It turned out to be an awesome time even though it was quite difficult to take good photos in the dark with moving candle flames. I won’t soon forget seeing the older indigenous people wrapped in old ragged blankets, sitting next to graves filled with candles and flowers. Some were alone while others were together with entire families. Seeing people surrounded by candlelight and flowers, drinking and eating, and laughing away the night will not be a scene I will ever forget. Not to mention it was my birthday.
November 1: Parades and the City Cemetery, Panteon General
will admit I was exhausted from the previous night so I sat around and talked for much of the day. My eight bunk dorm room was now filled with people from Brazil, Denmark, Germany, and Mexico. I was the only one from the U.S. in my room and probably in the entire hostel.
One of my many new friends in my room was a girl named Julia who was from Denmark. She was actually born in Latvia during its communist days so she spoke fluent Russian, Danish, and English. I never learned until the last night that she was an accountant, quite possibly the most boring job. She was quite an adventure seeker and is traveling until the end of May with the hopes to return home from Buenos Aires. She has been to Central America before and her plans this time are to scuba dive (she has an advanced certification), surf (she isn’t learning either), and to attend a Spanish school. Julia was also my favorite person to talk politics with and she sure knows a lot about European politics.
After chatting away the day we wanted to find an awesome parade in the city. There were
Oaxaca's main city cemetery under a full moon. The walls below are illuminated with thousands of candles
many going on but most don’t have posted times. Our hostel staff told us to walk to the barrio of Jalatlaco which was about ten minutes from our hostel and thirty minutes from the city center. Jalatlaco is a very traditional part of the city which still retains its narrow cobblestone streets and old adobe-like houses. It’s a beautiful barrio and the parade that takes place there is one that tourists can participate in. Unfortunately, it was rough figuring out the starting time and I ended up there around 8:30pm about 45 minutes or so after it started.
The Jalatlaco parade was electrifying like most of the parades in Oaxaca; however, it was made even better because of the historic location and more elaborate costumes. There were people dressed in masks walking on stilts, a random dude in some creepy animal like costume holding a cage with a kid inside, and lots of painted white faces, all making their way down the narrow cobblestone alleyways. The people I was with (Cheeky cheeks, Henry, Paula, and lots of other girls from our hostel) decided to bring firecrackers in order to participate. At the parades end, which was outside a cathedral,
Some sort of strange creature carries a live person in a cage
there was a fireworks show and lots of dancing. It was amazing but after a short amount of time most of the people I was with wanted to go out drinking. I decided that I could do that later on, so two of the girls and I went to the city cemetery known as the Panteon General.
Panteon General was a very touristy cemetery that lacked the decorative graves that were on show in Xoxo. The primary feature was the thousands of candles that were placed along the walls enclosing the cemetery. Most people just walked along the walls and few ventured into the dark grave area that was lit by a full moon (or very close) on this particular night. I must say that the darkness of this cemetery was creepy and on one of my photos there was a mysterious image that appeared. After zooming in closer it appeared as if two people were talking over candlelight and one had a skeletal face. Seriously there was nothing there but everyone else told me that I just had a good imagination. Still it left an impression on me!
Following my supernatural experience I went out to the
clubs like most of Oaxaca did. It was downright crazy and the crowds were so large that most places required a wait to get in. I prefer more laidback bars and after going out dancing on the previous night I wanted a more mellow experience. It was fun nonetheless, but I dropped about $25 which is a lot when living cheap in Mexico.
November 2: San Felipe del Agua
Day of the Dead technically ends on November 2nd
; however a few towns celebrate a day late. I still wanted to visit another cemetery, especially one that was more traditional with fewer tourists. The cemetery in the barrio of San Felipe del Agua fit this description and Julia decided to go there with me. Unlike on the previous cemetery visits when we wouldn’t arrive until after dark, we decided to arrive at San Felipe before sunset to watch the people decorate the graves.
It was late afternoon when we set out on our 45 minute walk to the cemetery. Once we got to the edge of the valley in which Oaxaca sits we arrived at San Felipe. Literally the road goes no further from here
because the mountains become quite steep. When we arrived about an hour before sunset we were the only tourists in the cemetery. At first sight, I knew that this would be the most beautiful and surreal cemetery experience of them all.
San Felipe Cemetery, like all Oaxaca cemeteries I visited, was walled in with one entrance. At San Felipe people were entering the cemetery carrying huge bushels of flowers and other objects. Once inside the cemetery, everywhere I looked I could see people on their hands and knees placing flower petals in unique displays. Many also had incense that they were lighting and the smells were strong. Smoke filled the air from both candles and incense. At the center of the cemetery there was a priest commemorating the people who had recently died. Many people were gathered around the priest in prayer and singing hymns. The singing coupled with both the smells and colorful displays were mesmerizing.
When darkness set in the singing and decorating continued and the glow of thousands of candles provided the lighting. I remember watching one family with kids decorating a grave and the grave next to theirs had no decorations. The parents then
gave the kids flowers and told them to decorate that grave. I also wanted to talk with at least one person about their grave and I chose a single old lady next to an old decrepit man. Their grave was the most beautiful and I watched them set it up for hours. It was astounding to watch two feeble old people put so much dedication into decorating a grave. This act truly shows the importance that Day of the Dead has and moreover, the significance of death and the after-life in Mexican society. I told them both how much I liked their tomb and the man responded, “es para mi papa.” (It’s for my dad). They told me about their decorations and the significance in the Dos Equis beer can they set up. His papa loved drinking beer.
As Julia and I made our way out of the cemetery a light breeze picked up and rain began to fall. The rain wouldn’t last long but the light breeze would, for in Mexico, the spirits arrive with the winds.
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