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The smell of marigolds and candle wax was heavy, as I carefully tiptoed between graves in the town of Atzompa, early in the morning hours of November 1st. This was the third cemetery I had visited that night, and the atmosphere was something far removed from the first two. San Miguel cemetery, in central Oaxaca, and the Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan had seemed almost like county fairs. Children screamed on carnival rides of varying quality. Venders sold tortas and tamales to drunk tourists who fell over each other, attempting to navigate the maze of families and dimly lit graves. There was too much noise, there were too many people. In Atzompa, there was relative calm. There were no tourists, no carnival rides, no rock bands. Families were diligently decorating the graves of loved ones, or huddled close together talking and sharing stories.

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I reached a point where I could no longer move forward without lighting myself on fire from a bevy of candles, or stepping onto someone’s final resting place. In America, doing the latter would be a sign of utmost disrespect. As I contemplated this moral conundrum, a group of young locals came running up behind me, looked at me as if I were a huge imposition on their fun, and then ran passed me trampling over the grave. Death is a little different here.

While facts about the exact age or origin of the tradition are largely lost to time, Dia de los Muertos was already an ancient tradition in Oaxaca, upon the 15th Century arrival of the Spanish. Even today it is one of the most, if not the most, important holiday in Mexico. Some people will skip out on going home to their families for Christmas or even Easter, but nobody misses Dia de los Muertos.  It’s important to note that despite the presence of religious iconography and focus on spirits, the holiday is much more a celebration of family than observance of any religious (Catholic) practice. In point of fact, many aspects of the holiday were modified by the original indigenous celebrants, to meet the slightly more modest demands of their new Catholic Spanish guests. While originally the skull of a deceased family member would be dug up, decorated and placed at a family altar, skulls made of sugar or chocolate are now the norm. The tree of life became the cross. The holiday’s celebration was switched from August to the beginning of November to align with the Catholic All Saints Day. While most people in the larger urban centers of Oaxaca view the holiday as more of a remembrance day for family members, there are still plenty in the pueblos who believe the dead do indeed return to this world.

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To help guide the dead to their homes, family members construct altars. Essential ingredients include candles, water, flowers, fruit, chocolate and bread. Most families also include some of their deceased family member’s favorite items such as foods, drinks, cigarettes, toys, or other items the person enjoyed in this world. It’s not uncommon for a family to spend several month’s wages on constructing an altar for the three day holiday. With the altar finished, families head to the cemetery on the night of October 31st to welcome the first of the deceased to return, the children. The next day they welcome back the adults.

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Having grown up in a culture where death is a very somber and private affair, it felt strange to be walking amongst other people honoring their deceased family members, as if I were intruding on something I shouldn’t be. However, over and over again I was greeted with a warm smile, a “buenas noches,” and invited to sit down and “meet” someone’s father as if he were still physically in this world. Nobody cried, nobody bemoaned the loss of their loved. They joked, they laughed, they ate. Mezcal flowed liberally. It had much of the atmosphere of a family reunion.

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Back in Oaxaca, the festivities continued on Saturday and Sunday. Calle Macedonio Alcalá was packed with tourists, marching bands, processions, costumed Oaxacans and men lighting fireworks. While the atmosphere of the fiesta was all well and good, I wanted to get back out of the city, to find the simpler, traditional experience I had found at the Atzompa cemetery. I rented a car and drove north to Villa de Etla. Being a Sunday afternoon, I found the streets largely empty. I asked for directions to the cemetery but had some trouble finding it. About to give up, I saw a woman walking down the street with a large bundle of marigolds. There could only be once place she was going with those. Her name was Irma Cuevas and she invited me to follow her to the cemetery where she was going to visit the grave of her father. “This is a beautiful holiday, to remember one’s family,” she said.

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Back in an older section of the cemetery I met Filiberto Miguel Garcia, who has been the groundskeeper for over 15 years. He asked me if we have this holiday in the US, I told him we only have Halloween. Not quite the same. He told me a lot of cemeteries fall into disrepair, people don’t take care of the graves except when it comes time for Dia de los Muertos. Many gravestones in this section of the cemetery were crumbling, as was much of the wall surrounding the property.

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I was losing light and decided to drive west looking for an even smaller town where I might find something interesting. I drove for awhile passed sheet metal dwellings, horse drawn carts, donkeys and the ubiquitous roving bands of stray dogs.  As the sun began to set I decided I had better turn around and head back to Oaxaca. Yet, as I came around a corner I was greeted with a sight that made me hit the brakes. Three men dressed as giant skeletons ominously walked down a dirt road toward me. I followed them into the village of San Andres Zautla and parked the car. They were heading to a party that was meant to last all night. Some locals asked me how I had found this place, and I told them that like most good things in my life, it was an accident. The mezcal came out. In the distance I heard the beat of drums, the blast of tubas and trumpets. Then the comparsa came, led by a priest wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and what looked like a giant Facebook symbol around his neck. The whole town had come out, dressed in everything from the traditional calavera costume, to the always lovable Jason of Friday the 13th fame.

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As the final night of the holiday, there was a lot of energy being released. People danced, used hairspray as a flamethrower, lit fireworks, and staged a dramatic impromptu play in the middle of the town square. After some more mezcal and tacos, the comparsa continued on a path around the town stopping at different houses for people to visit, drink and dance. People were happy. They had spent time with their families and now were seeing them off in a fashion totally inconceivable in many countries.

Young men ignite hairspray during the final night of celebration for Dia de Los Muertos in San Andres Zautla, Oaxaca, Mexico. L9997253

Death is a little different here. There’s sadness for sure, for people have physically left this world. Yet, there’s also happiness, beauty, and a sense of impermanence at the fact that they can, in a sense, return to us. Even for those who don’t believe in the return of a spirit, there is the opportunity to gather with family, tell stories and remember the deceased, how they lived and loved. As I watched those children run over the grave in front of me, I realized there’s an acceptance of death here that’s very different from what I know. The dead are not so far removed from the living, they aren’t to be feared, they aren’t gone. During this time of year, they return, and for a few days families can be whole again.