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The Day of the Dead: celebrating the cycle of life

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Two years ago, WAY’s Norfolk Area Contact Rebecca Chambers Farwell travelled to Mexico with five fellow WAY members to find out more about the Day of the Dead festivities…

A few years ago, I was looking at photos of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and commented to fellow WAY Widowed and Young members about how very different Mexican attitudes to death seem to be, and how much I would love to see the festival for myself. Beware of what you ask for – before too long one of our members had offered to organise a trip for us!

In November two years ago, five of us – Alison, Leah, Norma, Richard and I, all members of the Widowed Without Children group within WAY – arrived in Mexico City.

We enjoyed spending our first couple of days in Mexico City. A particular highlight for most of us was a visit to the home of the artist Frida Kahlo. There we learnt so much about her life and the amazing art that reflected both her Mexican heritage and the pain brought about by her terrible injuries sustained in a bus accident, as well as her consequent inability to have children – something particularly poignant for us as childless widows. It is somewhere I have always dreamt of visiting, and was a truly inspirational experience.

However, this wasn’t the main object of our trip, so on Friday, we made the very long drive to Oaxaca, which is supposed to be the best place to experience the Day of the Dead celebrations.

I think that Oaxaca and its surrounding area were exactly what all of us had been hoping for – glorious sunshine and, somehow, a much more “Mexican” feel than Mexico City had provided. And of course the Día de Muertos – the Day of the Dead. We learnt that it is, in fact, celebrated for more than one day, and that people believe that they are joined by the spirits of their deceased loved ones – and it is considered to be a very joyous occasion.

On 1st November, the spirits of children are reunited with their families, and on 2nd November, families are joined by the adult spirits. People create special altars to welcome the spirits, both at home and in public. We saw these beautiful altars everywhere, including in the shops and markets, usually elaborately decorated with flowers, fruit and other foodstuffs, skulls, photographs, candles and marigolds, which are considered to be the flowers of the dead, and which invite them home. People choose decorations that had special meaning for their family member. Special sweet bread rolls are baked especially for the occasion, marked with a cross that represents bones, and in Oaxaca, bread is also decorated with little painted heads – this even formed part of the breakfast buffet in our hotel!

Celebrating the dead

Decorations were everywhere, very much as they are at Christmas here. Traditional, bright papercut flags fluttered on lines across the streets. Skeletons and skulls were everywhere and, rather than being sad or sinister, were often really rather jolly, brightly dressed and – frequently life-sized – standing in shop windows. There were many opportunities to buy skulls, made from chocolate or sugar or brightly painted ceramics.

And there were so many processions. We would suddenly hear music and a procession would appear in the street, with musicians and people in costume – skeletons, traditional Mexican dress and even small children dressed as superheroes. These were a regular occurrence on the streets of Oaxaca, but one evening we made a special trip to a village that is famed for its procession and, as daylight turned to darkness, saw the most astonishingly elaborate costumes there. Darkness and death were transformed into a joyous, noisy party.

Visiting cemeteries is important at this time. One night, we went to the enormous General Cemetery in Oaxaca, which was absolutely full of people. Many were visiting family graves, decorating them with marigolds, nightlights and fruit and then having a picnic and a drink – sharing them with the departed they have invited and welcomed – very much a family occasion to unite the living and the dead. Hundreds of niches held nightlights, glowing in the night, and the atmosphere was solemn, yet full of happiness.

It felt important to us to join in and celebrate and remember the people we had loved in the same way. So, on the night of 2nd November, we created our own altar on our hotel terrace. We chose a table with an attractive background of shrubs behind it, covered it with borrowed napkins, and decorated it with a great deal of thought. We placed photos of our partners on it, and all contributed items with special meaning. For example, for my husband, I placed a small box of chocolates and a bottle of beer – he would have loved those. And we all added things we had bought for the purpose in the many markets and craft shops: skeletons and decorated skulls, paper cut flags, candles and marigolds. Our marigolds were made of paper and had been given to us by a lovely lady in a café near the Frida Kahlo house, from the ones she was making for her own altar for her father. And then we all drank to our partners. It’s hard to put into words just how it felt.

Making this trip in a small group with other widows meant that it was meaningful in a way that simply wouldn’t have been the case if we had been with a different sort of group. We wanted to explore the very different approach to death and the deceased in Mexico and appreciate the sense of spirituality and incorporating the spirits of the dead with their families. Many of us have found that in western societies, there is a tendency to deny death and to treat bereavement as if it is a slight cold that needs to be got over. Mexicans seem to have very different beliefs, arising out of older religions, that death is merely part of the cycle of life and celebrating the dead is very much part of the celebration of life.

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Day of the Dead
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