In pre-hispanic Mesoamerican tradition death is not the end of life, it is merely a transition to another level of life. A person's destination upon dying is determined by the type of life led. Those that die by forces of water -- drowning, being struck by lightening, or from diseases in which their bodies bloat with fluids, are privileged and invited by the god of rain to go and be with him in his paradise Tlalocan, right here on this same flat earth on which we live, but in an area inaccessible to the living. Other individuals will be invited by the sun to accompany him on his daily journey through the sky: priests, warriors who die in battle, women who die in childbirth -- considered another type of warrior --, those who offered their hearts in sacrifice, and those who committed suicide -- a very brave death, having taken by their own hand that which is most valuable to us.
The rest of us will go on a long and dangerous trip to the lowest of the underworlds. The extremes of danger we experience are determined by the life we led. Those who have followed all the rules of social order and have not committed many 'sins', if we want to call them that, will have an easy trip. But every possible thing that can go wrong will go wrong for those who have committed many 'sins'. Nevertheless, eventually, everyone makes it to the final resting place where all is provided for the rest of time. It is an idea similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory and accounting for ones sins immediately after death. However, Paul Kirchoff, the German anthropologist who coined and defined the word Mesoamaerica, says that the idea is very much a Mesoamerican one, firmly in place before contact with Europeans.
Whether it is syncretism, as often inferred, or the same story told in a different way, the Catholic church made space for the Mesoamerican idea as part of the observations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd, which were already included in the Catholic calendar of the saints.
Though Days of the Dead (it is a multiday event) is an indigenous celebration, you'll see organizations, businesses, and governments taking advantage of the days for marketing events of various kinds. The most unusual, I have come across, are car dealerships with skeletons in the drivers' seats of their new cars -- hardly the image you would think car manufacturers would like to convey! Municipal, state and even federal offices often offer prizes to the best altar for days of the dead. As the days pass one wonders where so many marigolds come from to decorate graves, home altars, and exhibits. A trip to any pueblo in October will answer that question. The countryside is ablaze with the golden flower.
Every town and village has its own particular way of celebrating, but the one common thread is the belief that souls of the departed come back and visit with their living family members for at least a full day. Souls always return to where they lived. That’s the only place a soul would know to return. You couldn’t expect a soul from a rural village in Oaxaca to find its family which has migrated to Monterrey or New York. Hence it becomes the biggest travel day in Mexico as people make an effort to get back to where they came from, where their deceased, family members lived. An altar set up in another place may be soothing to the people who have set it up, but in the grand scheme of things is purely decorative because the souls or spirits of the deceased won't find their way to that altar.
In its classic definition, an altar is a table, in this case set with an offering, ofrenda, of items the deceased enjoyed. Food, including something sweet, liquor, cigarettes, toys for deceased children, photos of the deceased, clothing, are standard fare on the altars. Water, matches, salt, special bread, candles, and incense are essential items. The dead are thirsty from their long journey, matches are used to light the way for the return, and salt is always craved by the dead. Preparing an ofrenda is not something one does hurriedly. A loved one who was a poker enthusiast would not be particularly attracted to a checker board. So in the weeks before preparing the ofrenda one begins to look for special treats that will be pleasing to the soul who will return… a little tequila, a mirror, a favorite teddybear?
The ofrenda is usually spoken about as if it is set on a dining room table, however it tends to look more like a home altar set up against a wall. The social level of the people setting up most of the altars for the dead isn't such that they have a proper dining room and the altar is frequently in a bedroom, or a room which functions as a bedroom at night and a multipurpose room during the day; awkward for the type of people who read this newspaper to get into a home and see the altar, or even be invited in, in the first place. The altars in homes usually aren't set up for visitors other than very close family friends.
Another source of awkwardness, especially for USn's is that we don't have experience in dealing with a holiday like Days of the Dead. We've deformed the Hallowed Evening before All Saints Day into a commercial bonanza called Halloween. We've even somehow morphed 'vacation' out of 'holy day'. It is hard in many sectors of our society to think of drinking hard liquor -- common fare at traditional Days of the Dead celebrations -- and not have it spill over into a party.
What may be most distressing for our need for choreography is that Days of the Dead events don't move quickly enough for our tastes. We tend to expect constant action and much of the Mesoamerican celebration is mindful preparation and waiting. Those involved want the festivities to go as slowly as possible. Days of the Dead isn't a somber time but is not particularly festive either. It is a rare opportunity for an annual tending of the graves, a visit with and paying of respect to deceased family members who have preceded us. Why would they want to hasten it along?
How then are we, outsiders, to be able to get more than a glimpse of the Days of the Dead celebrations? I like to follow the whole process. A good place to start is at the Thursday market in Yecapixtla, Morelos, on the Thursday before Days of the Dead. This year it will be October 28th. Vendors from all over central Mexico will be selling everything necessary to set up an ofrenda. As you drive to Yecapixtla keep your eyes on the roadside crosses indicating where someone has died a violent death, usually in a vehicle accident. Customarily these are decorated on October 28th, allowing the family of the deceased to attend to the needs of those who died far from where they lived, and still return home for those who died a natural death in their very own town.
This could also be a good day to visit the villages you plan to visit on Days of the Dead, in order see the transformation of the towns and cemeteries. Drive through town, visit cemeteries, peek inside doorways -- this is easiest to do in the evening, when lights are on and you more easily see inside homes. Get an idea of what the town is like on 'regular' days.
Try to stay away from the places which the government tourism departments advertise as "the places" to "experience" the Days of the Dead. They will be overrun with outsiders and in many cases the government tourism departments distribute candles and flowers and hustle villagers to decorate their cemetery to be ready for the tour busses' arrival.
One place where the doors are open for everyone is the church. The souls who are alone, who have no family members setting up an altar for them in their former homes, know there will be an ofrenda for them there.
It is common to set up altars for deceased children on the night of the 31st of October and for adults on the 1st of November. However there are exceptions. Xoxocotla just south of the city of Oaxaca draws huge crowds of visitors because it decorates the tombs in its cemetery on the night of the 31st of October, and the surrounding villages and city of Oaxaca do so on the night of the 1st or during the day of the 2nd of November.
Decorating the tomb is an extended family event. It goes on for hours, with weeding, cleaning, painting, decorating often with whole armloads of marigolds, known by their Nahuatl name of cempasuchitl. Other flowers are used too, especially a red felt-like flower (cockscomb). Both of these flowers are very fragrant. I’ve been told their pungency is particularly attractive to the dead. Many families sit, talk, eat, and visit with each other and the 'neighbors' decorating the tombs on either side.
In some villages trails of marigold petals lead the way from the tomb to the home altar, in others a line of petals from the street leads the way to the home altar. In some villages men take turns tolling the church bells to guide the souls back; at the end the bells ring to make sure souls know it is time to leave. Souls should not stay beyond their allotted time.
If invited in to see a home altar by all means take advantage of the opportunity. Just as it is appropriate to make the sign of the cross in front of the altar in a Catholic church, it is also appropriate in front of a home altar. If you're Catholic it will come naturally. If you're not, have a Catholic friend teach you how. A proper gift is candles. Brand new candles, as most everything on the altar will also be new. It is not your role as the guest to light the candle or even expect that it will be put on the altar while you are there. The family will decide where and when it will be lit. The easiest candles to carry are the long thin ones, two or three feet long. White and plain. You can buy them in main markets by the kilo. Three or four candles is enough for each altar you visit.
Days of the Dead only come around once a year and in two days they are over and won't be back until next year; you need to use your time wisely. You don't want to spend it caught in traffic or on long drives from one town to another. In the years I've lived in Mexico I've gone to places famous for their Days of the Dead: Tzintzuntzan and Janitzio Island in Michoacan; Xoxocotla, and villages in the Valley of Oaxaca; the highlands of Chiapas; Mixquic, in Milpa Alta, D.F. As so often happens, the best and most meaningful places I've found are right here close to home in the state of Morelos.
Ahehuehuetzingo, south of Cuernavaca, a couple of kilometers west of the free road to Acapulco, is where I've seen altars being put up for children on the night of October 31. It is also the only place where I have seen crying at the altar for the dead -- only once, in one home, but to be expected when welcoming back the soul of a child. Women make special bread for the little angels, as they are known. The place to meet them is in the evening at the bakery where they pay a fee to be able to bake their very own bread in the domed wood-fired oven. That's also a place to meet people who might invite you to visit their home altar.
Ocotepec, the first village on the old road from Cuernavaca to Tepoztlan, is the most welcoming of towns I've found for Days of the Dead. In addition to being very welcoming Ocotepec has one of the most unusual ways of setting up its altars. The homes which are open for visiting are those in which a person has died in the previous 365 days; if a child, it will be on the night of October 31, if an adult on November 1. You'll know where those homes are by seeing a line of people outside waiting to get in. Or, do as I do and go there the day before; drive up and down the streets and make a map indicating the houses being decorated. The streets will be too crowded to drive on the night of November 1. You will need to park and walk.
In Ocotopec the body of the deceased is laid out on a table the size of a dining room table. It is wearing new clothes and shoes and surrounded by the other things you'd expect to see in a Day of the Dead offering on an altar. Don't worry, the deceased's face is a life sized sugar skull, the clothing is stuffed to appear to be the deceased lying on the table. Nevertheless, upon entering that room you are in the presence of the deceased. The family is hoping to receive, as gifts from the visitors, enough candles to be able to keep a set of them lit throughout the following year. It would be in bad form for the family to have to purchase them. After leaving the room and exiting into the patio you will be offered tamales, sweet rolls, and a hot drink as well as a place to sit and enjoy them.
Farther along that road you will get to Tepoztlan. People there will have set up their altars, however you would have to be invited inside their homes to see them. Throughout most of Mesoamerica the Days of the Dead are October 31st to November 2nd. Tepoztlan is among the few towns which continue the celebrations/observances for another nine days bringing them to a conclusion on November 9th, a day which is as busy at the cemetery as November 2nd, with bands available for hire to play at the gravesite.
On November 2nd cemeteries everywhere will be decorated. I find it interesting to go back to villages visited the previous days to see the changes the town has gone through.
So far we have been observers, not participants. Most readers of this newspaper have been in Mexico for only a short while and have no dead buried here. And even if we do, we don't tend to follow the Mesoamerican customs. However if you do have deceased friends or relatives, I'm sure they would appreciate a place to visit and be received. An expat friend of mine in Cuernavaca prepares an ofrenda each year. She decides months before which relatives, friends, or even deceased pets, she will honor and then begins to collect items special to them. She’s had everything from martinis to golf balls to dog bones on her ofrenda. The central market of every town generally has an area available for seasonal items. There you can find the chocolate skulls, papel picado, copal and other traditional items.
If you would like to participate in decorating a tomb let me know. I'll be glad to have you accompany me to decorate the gravesite of a dear friend who died in Cuernavaca, he had no children, and has no relatives in Mexico. I would be glad to have company and be able to tell you his story -- a fascinating one.