Traditions

El Día de los Muertos
Death is Part of Life in Mexico

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

The Día de los Muertos Season: The Schedule
The Día de los Muertos is not just one day, but a week long "season". Here´s a breakdown of the meaning of the days as I remember them.

October 28 - For those who died suddenly in violent deaths
October 29 - For those who were killed
October 30 - For the unbaptized
October 31 - For children who died after being baptized
November 1 - For People no one remembers
November 2 - For all the Faithful Departed and Saints. Is a National Holiday in Mexico.

Dia de Los Muertos Altar
The Día de los Muertos Season
For the Living and the Dead

Many of our holidays are celebrated around the church calendar, but you don´t have to be a Catholic to join in the festivities.

Many people don´t pay much attention to what the church says and have their own private customs and beliefs.

For many, at least in Veracruz, the organized Church happens to coincide with what the people already believe.

In Mexico, death is part of life. It is accepted and celebrated as part of life just as any holiday would.

During the "Día de los Muertos Season" from October 28 to November 2, there are "altars" everywhere and life and death become confused.

In Mexico, el Día de los Muertos seems to be for all spirits, both living and dead.
Dia de Los Muertos Altar
Altars are Everywhere
In Mexico, there are "altars" in the private homes of many people, and in offices and businesses as well as public places.

It is believed that the departed spirits return to these special places for a visit during the holiday.

There must be food and drink for them as they come through in the form of a special "aire" that circulates through the windows and doors of the homes.

It is a comforting presence that people can feel and is not all scary as in the countries of the north.
Dia de Los Muertos Altar
A Glass of Water Near the Door
Many people place a glass of water next to the front and back doors of their homes.

I was told that it´s so these friendly spirits can have something to drink on their trip to the places they used to frequent when they were alive.

At the end of the holidays, people can see in some cases that the water is completely gone.

In public places, the candy skulls bear the names of the living and the dead.

A Festival for the Living, too
Last year I was surprised to see an attractive altar at one of the franchises that sell hamburgers.

There were candy skulls for the founders, as well as all the employees most of whom are still alive.
Dia de Los Muertos Altar
A Great Holiday
The people in Mexico really go all out for the holiday and have displays outside of their homes for passersby to see and marvel at, and each year they try to outdo the previous year.

The Days of the Dead in Mexico is a very special holiday to be enjoyed, and a time to tell stories about those who are no longer with us.

Maybe next year, I will take time to stop and take some photos of some of the altars around town.

After seeing all the altars, I decided I had to go along with the people to the cemetery on this special day.

This is the story of my visit to the cemetery on the Día de los Muertos in Veracruz.

Flowers
Among the Flowers
The Flowers of Mexico
If you love flowers, come to Southern Mexico.

When people go looking for flowers to buy, they go to the nearest cemetery.

Beautiful flowers are on sale at the cemeteries all year long, and around the end of October is a special time in Mexico.

To watch the florists of Mexico is to see the love they put into their profession, and the beauty of the flowers they sell.

They are always caressing their flowers as they cut and place each blossom into its own special arrangement.

You can see this feeling even in the humblest of the street vendors who carry the colorful bouquets in each hand.
Flowers
Flower Arranging
Feelings that Come from the Heart
Flowers are feelings that come from the heart.

To give flowers, is to give something of the heart.

From Puebla and Oaxaca
The Indians of Puebla and Oaxaca have a special feeling for growing flowers and vegetables in their cool fresh climate.

They are the caretakers of the spiritual traditions in Mexico.
Flowers
Flower Salesman
Flowers and Colors
Colorful flowers are a big part of any important celebration in Mexico and the huge zempasuchil or marigolds are the customary flowers for the Día de los Muertos.

Some say the meaning of the marigolds is to comfort a grieving heart, but for the Aztecs they were symbolic of death.

Throughout Mexico, as well as in Veracruz cemetery entrances are crowded with flower growers mostly from the state of Puebla.

There are the official booths, and others sell flowers from the back of a pickup truck.

All kinds of people come to buy flowers on this special day.
Zempasuchil Flowers
The Cycle of Life
Many of my Mexican friends view physical life as one of change, but the spirit remains the same.

Physically we live our lives changing and growing old and live in different places until our spirit finally moves on.

Even though a person may die, his spirit is still around and has only gone to another place to continue his life.

Flowers
Flower Vendor
Little Notes
Often you see little notes left on grave stones that are written as if grandmother has gone to Mexico City on a trip, and is missed.

I stopped to read one of the letters. One of them said:

"...since you left us, we really miss you and look forward to being with you again, when God wishes."

The Annual Pilgrimage
Each year during the first days of November many people go to the cemetery, or panteón.

It's not so much to mourn the dead, but to be with those who now live somewhere else, and are still present with us in our hearts.

The people tell me that life comes from the heart, and flowers come from the heart.
Churros
Time in Mexico
Time in Mexico is not as important as in other countries, and sometimes the past seems very close to the present, and the future is something that will never happen.

Those who have passed on are still with us in our hearts and minds.

Food is Everywhere
People are always eating something on the street.

When you bring the family, one of the kids is always hungry.

Barbequed chicken and typical churros are some of the good things to eat.
Food
To Take Home
Setting Up
A Rainy Day in November
Although I have lived in Veracruz for a long time, I have avoided the Day of Dead celebrations.

This year my friend Irma invited me along on her visit to her father at the Panteón Jardín.

I felt up to it and accepted her invitation and looked forward to a new experience.

It was a cool rainy somber day in November, not really conducive to any kind celebration.

But on this day, the area around the cemetery was crowded with people selling flowers and food.
Entrance
The Entrance
It began to sprinkle again and more people, mostly families, began to arrive with flowers in spite of the weather.

We followed the people through the gates of and entered the main street of the Panteón.

Just Inside the Gate
In Mexico, burial plots and markers are inexpensive, but maintenance is not included.

You are pretty much on your own.

And as a result most people only clean up their own private sites once a year on the Día de los Muertos.
Teenaged Gardeners
Buckets of Water
Just inside the gate were people of all kinds with 5 gal. buckets of water and gardening tools.

They were offering to wash down the tombstone and clean out the weeds which have grown up since the Día de los Muertos last year.

The asking price was 2 to 3 dollars for about 30 minutes work with several people pitching in.It gives the neighborhood kids a chance to make a little spending money.

We contracted three of the kids and with several buckets of water and we went looking for the grave. They were helpful and scattered out ahead of us looking for the headstone.
Mask
Boo!
Halloween
Halloween in Mexico is an imported custom and only in recent years have masks been available for sale. And like kids everywhere, they latch onto new customs.

But, among the traditionalists in Veracruz, celebrating Halloween is a "foreign" custom imported from the outside world and is looked upon as almost pagan.

Off to the left we saw a kid wearing his Halloween mask.

Families continue to work together in the traditional cleaning job.

It is the contribution of each individual member of the family and makes them feel closer to the family member who has departed.
Families
If you don´t have children of your own, it´s more convenient to pay one of the young gardeners to help.

Among the Tombstones
At first we couldn´t find the right place and with the help of one of the young gardeners we finally located where Irma´s father was buried.

While the teenaged gardener sloshed water on the tombstone and cleaned out the weeds, I looked around at some of the neighboring tombstones.

Because of the rain that came and went, there weren´t many people, but those who were there were busy scrubbing tombstones, and working on flower arrangements.

And, others quietly wandered around us among the headstones looking for friends or loved ones.
Lost in Thoughts of the Past
The Panteón is a Large City
In looking across the panteón, it seemed to be like a large city, and each pathway was a street with a name like "Calle 15" just like in town.

And there were all ages of people, from the very young to the very old.

Maybe that´s why in some places, a cemetery is called a necropolis . The city of the dead.

In Mexico, the inhabitants of old Veracruz seem to be alive in the hearts of the visitors, and it is where we will finally come to join those who are already here.
Flowers
Looking for Loved Ones
Strange Visitors
I was lost in my thoughts looking around while Irma continue to quietly make a wreath of large yellow marigolds, when I looked up.

Standing there was a lady and young girl. They had appeared from nowhere.

The lady asked Irma if she would like for them to say some prayers for her father. Irma said yes, that would be fine.

I had no idea where this lady had come from, but figured she wanted a few coins for her services.

To Say a Prayer
There are professional people who come to the funerals of the poor people and charge less than a priest to say prayers during the wake.

The lady and the girl said a few short prayers in a singsong voice, then left a blank space so that Irma could fill in the name of her father.
Our Strange Visitors
To Sing A Hymn
When the prayer was finished, they asked if she wanted them to sing a hymn, and Irma replied yes. It sounded like a very old Spanish hymn from a 16th century Mexican church.

I recorded some of it on an .mpg and it still sounds a little eerie. Here is a video clip of the hymn they sang.

I kind of expected them to ask for a donation, but they didn´t ask for a thing, and didn´t look put out when we didn´t offer anything other than a thank you.

They thanked us politely, and walked away disappearing among the graves. It left us speechless, and we never saw them again.
Flower Arrangements
Mission Accomplished
The sun began to come out, and Irma finished the flower arrangement for her father´s grave.

She said she preferred the red zinnia like flowers over the traditional bright yellow marigolds.

We talked a little about her fathers life. He was from Puebla and her mother is from a small town near Oaxaca.

She said that her family doesn't often celebrate the Día de los Muertos and wondered if her sisters would come this year.

Her mother told her she wouldn´t come this year.
On the Way Out
In her family, celebrating a particular day isn´t that important. This year she had felt like coming.

Time to Go
It looked like the rain was coming back, so we packed things up and walked back down the wide path towards the front gate.

People were still coming into the cemetery in spite of the threatening rain.

A Land of Many Customs
When you first come to Mexico, you see customs like the Día de los Muertos and wonder about it.

This is a large land of ancient traditions and customs. Many of them are very old and interesting
El Altar
Impossible to Know Everything
So, I am always asking my friends if they will explain these things to me.

When there is no explanation, I tell them I guess it´s an old Mexican custom.

It's because even the local people sometimes don´t have a ready explanation.When they don't know, we both kind of laugh.

It´s impossible to know everything about Mexico.
El Altar
The Mysteries of Mexico
Such was the case when we passed an Altar de los Muertos set up at the front gate.

It was full of fruit and candy skulls with some flowers off to one side of the large table.

I wondered who the portraits were of. They looked like they might be local politicians from the near distant past

I asked Irma who they were, but she didn´t know. I guess most people don't pay attention to politicians after they are gone.
Tailgate Business
Shelter from a Passing Shower
Just then, it began to rain hard, and the food and flower vendors hurriedly began to cover their wares.

We ran for the car jumping over the puddles.

For a moment during one of the heavier showers, we huddled under the shelter of one of the tents before making a dash for the car.

I asked the flower lady if they will sell all the flowers.

"Yes", she said, "We always sell all flowers."

Some of these customs are still a mystery to me.

Maybe next year, I´ll learn a little more.

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