31 October 2005
Days of the Dead: An Introduction
The 1st and 2nd of November are the Days of the Dead in Mexico. I plan to post photographs from my local cemetary, as well as images from the alters that will be set up in peoples' houses. That is later, this is to tell you what it is all about.
The festival has had a Papish tinge added to it, but the origins and practices are pre-conquest. The Roman Church basically had to accept something that the local population was not going to give up, so they cast around for a existing festival of their own and decided that All-Souls would do the job nicely. The fact that the calenders had changed helped, but the older festival was carried out at about this time, anyway, so the locals did not object. Other that this we are looking at is something that has continued pretty much unchanged for milenia. . .
The Days of the Dead are the two days when the living can actually speak to the dead. I don't mean that they can comune nor be in touch with - they can actually talk to the dead and the dead can talk to the living.
You are confused, I understand. Let's begin by looking at the Place of the Dead. The Mexicans have never really accepted the Papist notions of heaven, hell and purgatory. English people don't accept the last one; Mexicans are sniffy about all three. When we die we move from one reality to another. We go and "live" in the Place of the Dead and this place is as real as the lands we inhabit here in the Land of the Living.
To make it even easier for you, let's imagine that the Place of the Dead is Oldham. Now, we know it's there. We sort of know how to get there. It's just that we are in no hurry to make that journey. However, if we have to, then we go with as good a grace as we can muster and if we have to spend eternity there, well, we just accept it. That's the Mexican Place of the Dead - it's like Oldham.
Now I want you to imagine that on two days a year you could make a telephone call to Oldham. Obviously the means of communication are different, but the principle still holds. How do they communicate with each other? They do it via rituals that the dead may remember as it may be that the dead no longer speak our language - this analogy with Oldham is spot on! Sometimes, if the bond is very, very strong then direct, spoken communication is possible. I will not photograph mothers talking to their babies nor old widows to their husbands, but it does happen. Usually the communication takes place when the living person is asleep, but if that bond is strong then may not be necessary to get tucked up first.
The first day is for infants and children; the second for adults, but the rituals are the same for both. The night before an alter will be prepared in the house. A table will be covered with a white cloth and photographs will often be placed upon it. The favourite food and drink of the dead will be put there as well, along with things like the cigarettes that the dead smoked. In some parts of the country fires will be lit to guide the dead on their journey home. When it's all over and the food is eaten, it tastes lifeless, as if all the nutrients have been removed and only an empty husk is left. The same is true of the drink: you can swallow a whole bottle of tequila that has been on an alter and you won't get drunk. Someone else has been there before you...
The cemetaries will be open from the morning of the 1st November to the night of the 2nd. Many people will just go and camp out there for the whole period. Graves will be washed and garlanded with flowers. Sometimes the alter will be moved from the house to the grave, sometimes it won't: it all depends on the family. This is popular religion and everything depends of following the custom of your particular family. Children will run around playing amongst the graves, fathers will sort out the sleeping arrangements and mothers will cook food. If they didn't bring anything with them the street outside will be full of hot food vendors and their stalls. Someone will have a guitar and songs will be sung. It is at once a very public festival, full of joy, and at the same time very private. There is nothing sad about any of this. How could it be otherwise - their relatives are coming to speak to them.
As people bed down for the night, be it atop the graves or in their own homes, they know that all the questions that have nagged them for a full year will be answered. People will toss and turn in their sleep as matters of great weight between them and their dead are discussed and resolved.
We are nothing more than the sum total of the dead generations. What we do in life is an act of trust so that our sons may take over from us. When I am gone a photograph of me will go on an alter so that my sons may bring me home for one night of the year. It is the way things have always been, the way things are and the way they always will be.