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We love the Dead!

14 October 2013

I’d written several years ago a silly little guide to Mexico City cemeteries (“The Dead Tour”) which may even still be somewhat accurate, but for the meaning of it all, and to enhance the experience, one can’t have a better guide than “maesania “, a regular contributor to the Lonely Planet’s “Thorntree Message Board: Mexico”:

DoloresDFPeople interested in experiencing the Day of the Dead in Mexico often ask about where to go for an authentic DoD experience. From photos, articles and trip reports they’ve seen and read, it’s a natural assumption that the deeper you go into rural, indigenous Mexico, the more real and authentic DoD celebrations will be. But my experience suggests otherwise.

You also see the real Day of the Dead in Mexico City. Even though the people are urban middle-class mestizos instead of Indian villagers, their DOD customs and celebrations are no less a deeply ingrained part of their culture: indeed, I find that aspect one of the fascinating things about Mexico City during the DOD period.

As an example, look carefully as you go around the city and you will catch glimpses: every workplace—every supermarket, office, school, museum, market, etc.—has its altar to the departed set up somewhere – principally by and for the benefit of the employees, not necessarily visitors.

There are also numerous mega-ofrendas—large-scale altar exhibits—set up for public view at various locations around the city. For example, there will be one outside each of the delegación (borough) city halls. In past years there has always been a giant one in the main Zócalo – I expect there’ll be one this year, too.

Universities as well – for example, the UNAM mega-ofrenda is located in the vast green space in the centre of campus called Las Islas. The combination of traditional elements with modern social and political commentary can make this one particularly interesting. The students who create these ofrendas draw on their social, political, and internal cultural experiences – the ofrendas are more than just art exhibits, but expressions of a culture that they have been living all their lives. The theme of this year’s mega-ofrenda at the UNAM is “50 years since Remedios Vara” paying homage to the famous surrealist painter who died 50 years ago.

I can’t speak for all the cemeteries in Mexico City, so I’ll describe the one I visit, where my in-laws’ relatives are buried. On Nov. 2, the scent of Day of the Dead in panteon-san-fernando-1412_largethe cemetery is food, flowers, and incense. The sight is a shifting tapestry of colour: people and flowers—mostly gladiolas and giant marigolds. The sound is a murmur of thousands of voices of families conversing, punctuated by strains of mariachi bands here and there, and the cries of vendors weaving their way between the tombs. The pathways are choked with streams of people arriving and leaving. A visitor threading their way along the walkways would hardly be noticed among the crowds.

In summary, Day of the Dead in central and southern Mexico is different in the city vs. the countryside, but both are authentic experiences in their own way.

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