145. Dia De Los Muertos

Dia De Los Muertes: Day of the Dead, the perfect fusion of mainstream Spanish Catholicism and indigenous mysticism, is so simple yet so exotic that it’s become a significant tourist attraction. On this day, November 2, Mexicans celebrate the return of their loved ones’ spirits. The spirits return for one day, to indulge with the living in their more excessive pursuits. Homes and businesses erect elaborate shrines to the departed (above). Special meals are prepared to gather living families and ritual ceremonies welcome the return of the dead. It’s safe to say that the majority of the country views Dia De Los Muertes as a colorful folk festival, like Thanksgiving but with more trips to the cemetery. There are a number of small, rural communities however, who still take it as seriously as their ancestors. It is not uncommon in these areas to find widows and families maintaining all night vigils over open tombs, tenderly cleaning the bones of their great grandparents.

The artwork associated with Dia De Los Muertes is spectacular, everything from elaborate and vibrant sand “carpets” (left) of religious figures to macabre and hilarious skeleton figures (the best of these are posed in small dioramas depicting scary events, like open heart surgery). The occasion is as much about celebrating the deceased as it is making the living more comfortable with the idea of death. Which is why, on the main day of celebration, we found Oaxaca’s main cemetery overflowing with families; the majority of them sitting on and around the graves, toasting with Coronas, dancing and singing along with mariachi bands. They were tailgating, essentially, the way you might before a football game. Outside of the cemetery, there is just as much action. Food vendors, carnival rides, and rows upon rows of mobile florists. The sensation of being in the midst of this kind of merriment, in a cemetery, is overpowering.

We spent the days of the festival in Oaxaca City, where we lived with a local family as part of a home stay. Spanish language is the only language in their house, but the regularly awkward breakfast conversations were overshadowed by their sweet patience with us and their home’s proximity to the cemetery and zocalo. The festivities continued, citywide, for several days before reaching their fever pitch, when there is a parade passing you in the street every five minutes, spontaneous roving dance parties and costume contests. The atmosphere is electric leaving no question that this is very much a festival for the living.

More photos below, left to right and top to bottom: Family gathered at a grave; enormous sand and flower carpet shrine to artist Frieda Kahlo; Dias de Muertos poster; street parade/dance party/traffic jam; the halls of the cemetery; building a sand and flower carpet on a grave; shrine; mariachi for hire; Panteon General, Oaxaca’s main cemetery at dusk.


  1. ron says:

    neat. i wonder what my family would be like if we were able to deal with or celebrate are passed loved ones in such a way…

  2. Sloan says:

    Agreed. This really left me longing to participate in this kind of ritual family bonding. Make death fun and funny – It’s an incredibly simple and enlightened way of dealing with it.

    There were lots of young kids absolutely petrified by the more macabre skeletons and costumes, but it was clear from the behavior of the other, older kids around that they’d be literally dancing on graves within a few years.

  3. Dan says:

    Guys, I’ve been tuned out for a while and sure hope you’re not in Guatemala, because I just came back from a two-week work trip there and would be remiss if we could’ve hooked up had I been paying attention. I even took something of yours along – that nifty Eagle Creek compressor bag we carted back from New Delhi! Hope you don’t mind that I borrowed it (but not its previous contents).

  4. Sloan says:

    No Guatemala, I’m afraid, we’re out of money…and that compression bag better not smell like dirty underwear, fella.