The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is not only one of the most important celebrations in Oaxaca, it is also one of the most visited by tourists and others who want to see the "quaint" and "picturesque" practices associated with this observance. The idea of passing the night in the cemetery with music, food and gaiety strikes them as strange, as does the emphasis on all aspects of death, skeletons as decoration, special altars honoring the deceased, the poetry and pageantry. But how much do they know about the beliefs and tradition behind the celebration they see? Read on for a little history and explanation.
Man is the only creature that buries its dead. Discoveries at burial sites, some dating from more than 50,000 years ago, further show that all groups have had some form of belief concerning death and an afterlife. Articles entombed with the deceased traditionally include food, clothing, tools and other items required for a journey and a continuance of existence. The idea of extinction only appears around the 7th century BC.
Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of the Spaniards had the highest civilization in the Western Hemisphere, especially advanced in the sciences of astronomy and mathematics. They knew and used the concept of zero and the accuracy of their calculations resulted in a sophisticated calendaric system which differs only by seconds from the modern computer calendar. Religion was the driving force, with a complex polytheistic pantheon of deities.
The marked concern with the dead specified their destination, the nature of the afterlife and the relationship between the dead and the living. It was believed that the dead continued to exist much as they had in life, after first undergoing an arduous four year journey to reach their final destination. They apparently also enjoyed a special position with respect to the deities. Many celebrations were held throughout the year to honor those who had gone before on that difficult road and also to ask their intercession with the gods to protect crops against natural disasters.
The feast of Miccailhuiltontli was celebrated in Tlaxochinaco (ninth month of the Anáhuac calendar which corresponds to our late July-early August). In this ritual dead innocent children were solemnly honored and petitioned to intercede for protection against the often devastating effects of hail in the ninth and tenth months.
In the tenth month the living marked the solemn feast in honor of the adult dead with three days of feasting, after which they rejoiced by going to the fields to play.
Other observances took place in the fifth, thirteenth, fourteenth and eighteenth months, were associated with specific gods and spirits, and were intimately linked to the disposition and destination of the dead. The final destination for the majority, according to beliefs generally held among different ethnic groups, was to the north and was known in Nahuatl as Mictlán.
Beliefs were profound and complex, covering all the different causes of death, the status of the defunct, the deities associated with the category of dead, and the time of the year. Details of ceremonies varied according to these specifics, but some practices were fairly universal and their influence can be appreciated in the modern celebrations of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.
Let us summarize observations made by the Spanish on witnessing some of these celebrations, before the Catholic influence prevailed.
"They used to celebrate the feast of the dead, because they offered in their honor to the devil many turkeys, corn, blankets, clothing, food and other things. In particular, every household celebrated a great feast. They incensed the images they had of their dead parents, kinsmen and priests." (Anonymous Manuscript dated 1553)
"Facing north, they fervently prayed to their own kin, entreating them 'Come quickly, for we are waiting for you.' During this feast, offerings of food and drink were made to the dead on their graves." (Telleriano-Remensis Codex)
"After having placed the images on their family altars with great ceremony they offered them tamales and other foods, and they also sang their praises and drank wine in their honor.
"They also used to place images of the dead on grass wreaths. Then at dawn they put these images in their shrines, on top of beds of reed, mace sedge or rush. Once the images were placed there, tamales and gruel, or stew made of chicken (Sic. really turkey) or dog's meat (sic, really tepeizcuinte of the tapir family). Then they offered the images incense from an incense burner in the form of a fired clay hand and they called this ceremony Calonoac.
"And the rich sang and drank pulcre (sic) in honor of these gods and their dead. The poor offered them only food, as has been described." (Sahagun)
The arrival of the Spanish in 1519 and the imposition of the Catholic religion affected in greater or less degree every aspect of life.
As early as the 5th century AD there arose a cult of martyrs with commensal banquets, pilgrimages, etc., which expanded in the 6th century to include All Souls observances. It was not until the 10th century, however, that the honoring of the dead with an "All Souls' Day" celebration was accepted by the orthodox church, probably as a policy to generate unity and ritual devotion. The practice served as a rallying point for local congregations who spread their devotion to other areas.
In Spain, the influence of the Moors and catholic reaction following their expulsion from the country in the late 15th century resulted in a greater emphasis on the celebration of All Souls' Day. The Dominicans especially deemed it ritually more important than All Saints' Day and each priest offered three masses for the "eternal glory and rest of the faithful departed". Note that the Dominicans were the principal proselytizing force in Oaxaca, so that their observance of All Souls' Day found fertile field for syncretization with the local indigenous beliefs and practices.
Syncretism is defined as the reconciliation or union of conflicting (as religious) belief or an effort intending such. Pope Gregory established a policy of syncretism in 601 AD when he ordered missionaries in England to "Let the shrines of idols by no means be destroyed but let the idols which are in them be destroyed. Let water be consecrated and sprinkled in these temples so that the people, not seeing their temples destroyed, may displace error and because they were wont to sacrifice oxen to devils, some celebration should be given They should celebrate a (Catholic) religious feast and worship God by their feasting so that, still keeping outward pleasures, they may more readily perceive spiritual joys."
This policy was followed by the Spanish in their conquest of Oaxaca and all New Spain, with the resulting fusion of customs and practices which is still evident today. Most of the Spanish influence consisted in the "christianization" of the native beliefs, changing their gods and tutelary spirits for the Trinity, Jesus, Mary and the saints. The dead no longer journey to Xochiltlapan, Tlalocan and Mictln but to Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo. But the "faithful departed" still have the power to intercede with God for the benefit of the living. Decoration of the altar now includes catholic religious images in place of the native gods, as well as those of the honored dead.
Each family builds and decorates its altar each year. There is a special market on October 31 selling only materials for the altars and other necessities for this season, while pan de muerto is to be found everywhere.
A typical altar begins with a table on which are placed boxes to represent the tombs and all is covered with a white tablecloth or sheet or with papel picado, paper cutouts with special themes related to the season. Long stalks of sugarcane or carrizo are tied to the front legs of the table, formed into a triumphal arch above the altar and decorated with flowers. The images of the saints and the family dead are placed on the altar and everywhere there are flowers: The golden flower of death, the Zempoalxochitl, the vibrant red cresta de gallo, perhaps some rich purple agapantos and the pure white nube.
The special offerings of food may include mole, nicuatole, pumpkin cooked with brown sugar, cane sugar and tejocotes. Beautifully decorated pan de muerto, chocolate, pecans and peanuts. Cooked chayote and fresh fruits - oranges, lemons, bananas, jícama, tejocotes, nísperos and pineapple. If the deceased smoked or drank, then cigarettes and mezcal are placed on the altar together with any other special foods or tributes which were a favorite in life. If the altar is for an "angelito" or dead child, it will also include favorite toys and many white flowers. Then comes the lamp with oil of higuerilla, the wax candles, white or yellow adorned with black crepe paper. An especially elaborate altar may also feature a colored sand and seed painting on the floor in front of it representing a particularly esteemed saint.
The concept of the Danse Macabre brought from Europe was adopted by the Mexicans and fused with the prehispanic customs and attitudes, resulting in a uniquely Mexican custom especially prevalent in Oaxaca - calaveras and catrinas and the omnipresence of skeletons, skulls and sepulchres. Candy skulls, wood and clay figures depicting skeletons dressed as doctors, judges, teachers, footballers, tennis players, prostitutes - every conceivable profession and pastime is burlesqued. Serious paintings and sculptures in the famous Oaxacan black clay and other materials appear in stores and museums, as well as on family altars.
The Calaveras are widespread drawings and verses satirizing "dead" politicians, teachers, and friends and there is a special section of calaveras in the newspapers "honoring" those in the public eye.
La Catrina is a female skeleton with the chapeau and dress of the 19th century grande dame and everywhere represents death which can catch you anywhere and anytime.
With a typically irreverent gesture, Oaxacans convert Death to a near presence - feared and sought, scorned and loved, terrible and fascinating.
Although the principal celebration takes place beginning October 31 and ending on November 2, special categories of deceased are honored on preceding days: October 28 - those who died in accidents, suicides, homicides and other violent deaths; October 29 - the unbaptized; October 30 - the lonely soul. October 31 is special for the "angelitos" - children who died after being baptized. November 1 is when the adult dead return to visit and the 2nd is the day to clean and decorate the tombs in the cemeteries and spend time with the family members buried there. Many spend the night with candles, music and festivity to celebrate their dead and after around 3:00 PM share the offerings of food with friends and relatives.
The angelitos arrive to visit their families at 3:00 PM on the 31st and depart at the same hour on the 1st, to permit the adults to visit. Their arrival is signaled by the creaking of wooden beams and floors and the sputtering of the candles on the altar. At 2:00 PM on November 2 all return from whence they came and the festivities begin to wind down, leaving all the tombs clean and beautified. In many villages cemetery visits continue throughout the month.
Just as there are differences in details of the altars and the celebrations from one family to another so there are differences among the many ethnic groups which make up Oaxaca. But in every home, in every cemetery, in every community, el Día de los Muertos is possibly the most important celebration of the year. Of all the Oaxacans who live in other parts of the world who are able to return for only one celebration during the year, the majority try to be with their families at this time.
This intensely personal celebration is at the same time a communal expression of tradition and belief, reverence and ridicule in the face of common destiny. Ever caring, every sharing, the hospitable Oaxacans each year graciously receive thousands of strangers anxious to witness their ceremonies in affirmation of life and what comes after. The city fills with tourists and special tours of the cemeteries abound. There are altars in stores, restaurants and public buildings, with a prize for the best decorated. There are books, exhibitions and lectures to explain the many facets of the celebration. Skeletons, "calacas" and catrinas are to be found everywhere and candy skulls sport names of all origins.
For the many who come to learn about a culture different from their own and respectfully observe and appreciate all of the color and pageantry, Oaxaca opens its arms and invites them to spend some time in the cemeteries at Xoxocotlán, San Miguel and others nearby. Enjoy the beauty of the decorations and the delicious food of the season. Try to compose a calavera for your best friend or worst enemy. Thanks to its fabulous heritage, Oaxaca is one of the few places in the world that preserves its customs and traditions, which is why it has become the favorite destination of many who seek something different and meaningful. Here death is only another phase of life which we both shrink from and court with satire and ceremony. Our most profound beliefs and hopes are celebrated during los Días de los Muertos.
The most popular "Cemetery Tours" take place as follows:
October 31 evening - Xoxocotlán, later that night - Santa María
November 1 - San Miguel (Panteón General) in the city all day and evening
November 2 late afternoon - San Antonino (sometimes this date changes depending on day of week - all agencies should know of any change) and that night - San Felipe del Agua
There are many tours which visit all or some of these cemeteries.
The City of Oaxaca also arranges events at the San Miguel Cemetery,
such as shown in poster below, exhibition/competition of altars,