In the United States, as the weather begins to cool and fall foliage starts to change, thoughts turn to the opening of the holiday season, which for many begins with the costuming, cotton cob-webs, and trick-or-treating that marks Halloween. On the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, however, the weather doesn’t turn, it just rains less, and in the place of the lone day of Halloween is a stretch of three days: Halloween, All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2), collectively and colloquially known as Día de Muertos or “Day of the Dead.” The three-day stretch is classically observed by constructing altars on Halloween for the spirits of children to visit on Halloween night (the spirits of adults then come to visit on All Saints Day), followed by a family visit to the cemetery to commune with and honor their dead on All Souls Day.
The holiday, unique to Mexico, is quite visibly observed in the Yucatan region, where it was combined with the traditional indigenous Mayan holiday for honoring the dead, Hanal Pixan (which was moved to coincide with the Christian date of observance). In Mérida, there are many official festivities, including the construction of Altars in the Plaza Grande across from the cathedral and a parade (“The Passage of Souls”) from the cemetery through town to Iglesia Católica San Juan Bautista. This is the Día de Muertos you see in photos: the catrina skeleton, skulls, vibrant colors, altars with offerings and flowers, the papel picado flags draped everywhere. But there is another side to the Día de Muertos, and while it is perhaps less photogenic, it speaks volumes about the lives of the inhabitants of the Yucatan.
There are, and will continue to be, plenty of articles, photos and experiences of the bombastic, colorful side of the Día de Muertos, but we were more interested in the personal side of the All Souls holiday, so we headed to Mérida’s Cementerio General on October 31 to look around. Though most families would come to the cemetery two days later, the beginning of the holiday found a quiet but busy scene among the tombstones. There were clusters of people here and there, and lone men with buckets of supplies, all working on their family tombs. Many tombs were being painted, others were undergoing minor maintenance. People set about their labor among the dead with a reflective and almost celebratory focus. The Día de Muertos, after all, is not a time for mourning, but a time for remembrance, and the difference is in the attitude.
The cemetery, a warren of tombstones with niches, was a scene full of color, of fresh flowers and flickering candles, and the people working didn’t appear to do so out of obligation, but love. Later in the week, they would return, whole family in tow, to spend time in front of the freshly painted tomb, but for now, it was about the work to be done. The practice of painting tombs around All Souls Days is not unique to Mexico of course; it’s observed across the Catholic world. Even in South Louisiana, families are known to whitewash the tombs of their ancestors at this time.
And it’s there—not in the skeletons or the marigolds but the collective effort—that lies an important aspect of All Souls Day. There is a human need to remember, to keep our loved ones alive beyond the too-limited span of their lifetimes. We feel a compulsion to maintain the presence of those we love and respect in our own lives. The Mayans did this at Hanal Pixan, the Mexicans do this at Día de Muertos, and the French Catholics of South Louisiana do this on All Saints Day. While these holidays are wonderful opportunities for community and celebration, they’re about more: they’re about memory; about taking time out to pay deference to the role that our ancestors played and continue to play in our lives. The colors and parades and altars are the most visible part of the tradition, but in the days before—containing the solitary but essential work of painting tombs in the hot sun of a quiet cemetery—is where you’ll find the heart of the tradition.