A million years before I ever dreamed I’d end up as a funeral director–in the fourth grade, to be exact – my teacher presented a lesson at the end of October about the Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos, and my mind was BLOWN.
People throw all-night parties – with special food, music, dancing, the whole shebang – in graveyards?? It’s ok (healthy, even!) to display a full spectrum of emotions in an ongoing relationship with lost loved ones? Skeleton and skull decorations and art don’t have to be creepy OR morbid? Why had nobody told me these things!?
My family and most of the people I knew were not particularly religious or spiritual. Like so many Americans, I was raised in a culture that viewed death as unsavory and nothing to be talked or excessively thought about. If it did happen – if it had to be addressed – the appropriate reaction was sadness, followed by quickly putting the whole business out of your mind.
The philosophy underlying the Mexican celebration is similar in some ways to many other traditions around the world. Honoring continued connection to ancestors and deceased loved ones, integrating death to life in an authentic manner, embracing that which is mysterious and sometimes scary in order to live fully and well – was unlike anything I’d ever heard, but felt so obvious, and so right.
So while that grade school lesson barely scratched the surface of these complex and ancient traditions the meaning of death changed a lot for me, forever, in all kinds of positive ways.
So thank you, fourth grade teacher, wherever you are! It may even be your fault that I’m doing this work now! And it’s probably definitely your fault that I dragged my husband (who had never traveled abroad, incidentally) to Oaxaca, Mexico, for Dia de los Muertos, as our honeymoon…..
Which was a truly amazing dream come true – an incredible experience, for which I’m so very grateful. We spent a week in Oaxaca City and the surrounding towns and villages, learning about the history and culture of the folks who live there and their ancestors, as well as current politics and all the challenges various communities are facing each day. We met so many wonderful people, who were extremely patient and generous with us. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and anyone who has a chance should absolutely go visit. Even my husband had fun! (He was a total trooper).
And if you go during this time of the year, expect that it will be like Mardi Gras, only more fun and maybe even crazier . There were spontaneous parades every night in the streets, complete with brass bands, giant papier-mache skeletons, and everyone in elaborate costume. Annual public theater pieces are performed, and there’s lots of music and dancing. In all the places we went, from public spaces to private homes, intricate and gorgeous altars had been set up with offerings for the visiting spirits. Everyone, from children to the elderly, participated in the festivities. And there were, indeed, all-night graveyard vigils and parties, with raucous laughter to silent tears and everything in between.
There were also many tourists, like ourselves, and I noticed an element of voyeurism among us foreigners that made me uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassed. I suspect that some people who come from ritually and spiritually impoverished cultures and traditions (like me) are desperate for better ways of handling life’s thresholds and mysteries – especially when it comes to death, and especially in such a collective manner. So in addition to my fourth grade teacher, thank you Oaxacans, for putting up with us and graciously sharing your rich wisdom.
Whatever holiday you’re celebrating this weekend, I hope it’s warm, fun, and cathartic!
Here are a few pictures from our trip: