Death, spirits and overnight graveyard vigils. Sounds ghoulish doesn’t it? Not in Mexico where death is viewed as a transition rather than an end.
Día de los Muertos or Day of The Dead which takes place in November celebrates and honors the dead. The belief is that the spirits of the deceased return for a reunion with loved ones. On November 1, All Saints Day, it is thought that the souls of children visit and November 2, All Souls Day, adults. It is a happy, rather than mournful, time.
The tradition is a mix of pre-Hispanic customs merged with Christian rituals. Families set up altars dedicated to the deceased and decorate their graves. The elaborately decorated altars, which typically include a photo of the deceased, marigolds, candles, sugar candy skulls and paper cut outs resembling lace, are completed with offerings or ofrendas. The offerings are meant to welcome the spirits and include items such as food and drinks they liked. Graves are decorated in a similar manner.
Oaxaca City in southern Mexico is one of the prime places to experience Day of the Dead. In the days leading up to the festival Oaxaca is decked out with decorations, altars and in its main square, or zocalo, sand paintings.
Death is portrayed with humor. One restaurant’s entrance had a few dozen tables set up with offerings for dead celebrities.
Oaxaca is known for its high quality crafts and it goes all out for the Day of the Dead. You can see altars set up in public places by local artists mocking death, like the bride and groom in the photo above. Paper mache, ceramic and carved wood skulls and skeletons are among the items sold in galleries and craft stores.
In Oaxaca the festival culminates with all night graveyard vigils. From evening until dawn families sit around graves meticulously cleaned and decorated. The atmosphere in the graveyards is spiritual and celebratory and visitors are welcomed with smiles.
In one massive graveyard on the outskirts of the city, several hundred graves lit up by candles were surrounded by families telling stories of the departed, picnicking and playing music.