Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Very Lively Death

      Death drew me to Mexico this month--not in grief or sorrow, but in pursuit of life. Intrigued by the colorful rituals and mysteries of Día de los Muertos, an event that blurs the barriers between life and death, I traveled to the tradition-rich city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. To be honest, I was feeling half-dead myself, mired in an emotional slump that had stretched from June to November.

LuVerne & Goldie Scott
     In preparation, I packed photos of my mother and father, and mementos of departed friends. I mused about encounters with skulking spirits supposedly drawn to earth November 1 and 2 for reunions with friends and families. Although I've made a number of visits to Oaxaca, I'd never experienced this. I arrived in time to join my hosts and fellow guests at Casa Panchita in assembling a memorial altar at the inn, and positioned my parents amid marigolds and sugar skulls. 

     Throughout the city, the commercial and traditional trappings of Día de los Muertos filled courtyards and store shelves with skeletons and skulls. Ornate sand paintings of saints or haunting apparitions spilled across church plazas.  Elaborate altars erected by community groups filled museums, plazas, and market places with colorful offerings of flowers and foods, enticing ancestors back to earth to feast on ingredients of an abundant, vibrant life--tamales, yeasty breads, bananas, chocolates, and perhaps a sip of mescal.

     In Oaxaca's sprawling central cemetery, I held hands with a Oaxacan friend in the dark of evening to avoid being separated in the surge of families, tourists, and face-painted youths crowded into the jumbled chaos between monuments. Candlelight spilled from niches in the crypt-lined walls and Mozart echoed through the air. Ensemble groups in each corner of the graveyard alternated in delivering musical offerings to lift the spirits of listeners on either side of the graves. 

     The musicians were students at an annual symposium dedicated to encouraging and supporting accomplished young players from throughout the state of Oaxaca. A week of workshops and lessons by master classical performers from around the world included opportunities for students to fill the public spaces of Oaxaca City--cemeteries, church courtyards, museums, even the central market--with multiple concerts daily. The educational program coincided this year with Día de los Muertos for an auspicious juncture of death and lively harmony. 
      The following day, I strolled to a small, community cemetery where trucks piled with marigolds lined adjoining streets. This traditional Día de los Muertos bloom is considered a symbol of death and reverence. In the warm sunshine of noon, families carried buckets of water and utility brooms to wash the tombs. They cut bouquets, lit candles and took photos of decorated graves. Día de los Muertos brought the graveyard to life. More like Memorial Day than Halloween in terms of intent--to remember, to honor, to reconnect with what endures. 
Xochilmilco Cemetery, November 2

"No one really dies as long as you still think about them," observed an article I read about Día de los Muertos. I cradled that thought as I returned from Oaxaca, immersed in the enduring presence of my mother and father, and a growing number of friends no longer present in body, but very much alive in my dreams, desires, and decisions. It pleases me to imagine that in this way--they and I together--we keep one another alive. 

Thanks for your patience with erratic deliveries! I think I have the email delivery mystery resolved for now. 


  1. Beautiful, Carolyn! Your description, your photos, and your sentiments.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Jan Meredith

    1. Much appreciated, Jan. I know that you share this great affection we have for Oaxaca, and its traditions. Odd that we've never been there together!


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