Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Participating in Dia de los Muertos

Strict separation of church and state leads to peculiar relationships between Mexico's very religious population and secular law.  Today and tomorrow are two of Mexico's most important holidays -- Days of the Dead.  Not recognized by labor law, they end up being the days of highest absenteeism.  Firmly rooted in prehispanic Mesoamerican thought and culture they survive with a veneer of Christianity. 
Each town celebrates Dias de los Muertos in a different way.  Some decorate their tombs on the night of the 31st of October, some on November 1st. All will have done it by the 2nd.  The lower the income level the more decorated the tombs.

Families not only decorate tombs, they set up altars in their homes.  Most will graciously welcome visitors to see their altars.  As in a Catholic church, it's appropriate to make the sign of the Cross upon approaching a home altar for the dead.  If that isn't your custom have a Catholic or Episcopal friend teach you.  

Ocotepec, just north of Cuernavaca, has one of the most unusual ways of commemorating Days of the Dead.  Families in which there has been a death in the previous 365 days will open their homes to hundreds of visitors tonight.  The body of the deceased will be on display -- don't worry, it's an imitation life-sized body.  Last year this column was about Ocotepec.  Send me an email if you would like a copy of it and I'll respond before noon.   

To visit with departed family members, the living must return to where the deceased resided in life.  The souls of the deceased know their way back to where they lived, not to where their living family members may have moved or migrated -- making it difficult for most readers of this column.  If "our dead" did not live here all we can do is look in on the way others observe this day. 

However, I'll let you in on a loosely held secret and another way in which you too can be a participant in this day's celebration.  At midnight on March 16-17, 2005, a very dear friend died as I held him in my arms.   We buried John Spencer that afternoon in the beautiful churchyard of the Church of Los Reyes Magos on Calzada de los Reyes in northern Cuernavaca.  John had ringed that churchyard with fantastic stone walls of his design, making it a landmark in his adopted town.  

The "we" who buried him were his many friends.  John had no children, and his wife Lady Elizabeth had preceded him by many years.  Word of his death spread through Cuernavaca.  His wake was attended by people from all walks of life who congregated in his magnificent home for Mass; followed by another service across the street in the Cathedral; and then burial in the churchyard -- requiring special permission from the church and municipality, since it no longer functions as a cemetery. 

John had friends from many circles who didn't necessarily know one other.  This made for the most unusual wake I have ever attended.  "We" didn't offer condolences to anyone; no family members were present.  "We" had only ourselves to console.  I asked people how they knew John.  Some gave me snooty replies along the lines of "who are you to be asking me that?"  From others came fascinating stories.  One had known him when she and he were residents of La Casona, then a tenement-like building housing sixty apartments.  Another the widow of the welder whom John would contract to do the heavy lifting in his sculpture projects.  A student told me she didn't know him; she had always wanted to talk with him but was afraid to.  She finally found the nerve to approach the man considered by many to be a living/walking monument in Cuernavaca, went to his door -- and realized his home was open for a wake.  

Another woman knocked on the door early in the morning.  Word was relayed upstairs that she wanted to know if she could come in.  I replied, "Of course.  Everyone is welcome."  As she climbed the staircase I recognized the street sweeper.  She didn't know that John had passed away during the night.  She was coming because she hadn't seen him for several days and was concerned about him.

John’s grave is marked by a simple stone -- one of only a few gravestones in the churchyard.   For the first years after his death I placed flowers on his grave for his birthday, deathday, and on Day of the Dead.  A few years ago a group of students from the University of Minnesota were here for a semester-long service-learning project studying Mexican culture.  Carol Hopkins, also a friend of John’s and co-teacher of the class, and I decided that rather than just visit cemeteries it would be good for the students to have the experience of creating an altar and decorating a tomb.  It became an elaborate all-day event with ten of us using rebar and marigolds to copy portions of John’s walls in flowers.  

Each year since then we have created an elaborate decoration.  We'll be there again today, starting at noon, and will welcome any volunteers.  

Another event honoring recent dead, in which you can be a welcomed participant, is a 5 pm march today from Cuernavaca's Glorieta de la Paz to its Zocalo.  Though called by the movement headed by Javier Sicilia, it will be leaderless, without political or religious affiliation, silent, spanning all sectors of society.  White clothing and a votive candle are appropriate. 

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