Our body may decay but the soul lives on, alive and in communion with the minds still rooted in this mortal plane.
A procession of countless white skulls stretches into the darkness ahead, their way lit by flickering candlelight and ushered on by swelling brass and thunderous drums. The eerie midnight parade whoops and hollers its winding way towards the cemetery on the outskirts of town where the graves of those gone before come alive in the moonlight, bedecked with flowers and rich with the vices of the life left behind, cigarettes, sugar and alcohol. The night is drunk on the heady scent of incense and marigolds and the revellers, children, adults and spirits alike, are buoyed up by memories and music.
Borne of an ancient Aztec festival honouring the goddess of death, Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrates the annual return of their ancestor’s spirits to the land of the living. Contrary to the solemn connotations of death widely held by most of western society, Mexico uses the occasion to focus on the joyful times of lives once lived. Hordes flock to the cemeteries to dance round the graves of their deceased relatives, present them with gifts of sugar skulls and sweet bread and to talk and laugh of lost times over mezcal and beer. The streets of the dead awaken for the night, their residents shaking off their deathly slumber to carouse with the living once more.
Today Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Our Lady of the Holy Death), is most commonly seen elaboratly dressed in the 20th century fineries once popular with the upper classes. La Calavera Catrina, as she is known, wears a large brimmed hat dripping with flowers and an exquisite long dress, but is still unable to disguise her skeletal state. The image, created by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada and popularised by Diego Rivera, carries with it the unavoidable truth that in death we are all equals. This mascot of death continues to inspire the macabre facepaint and costumes seen whirling through the darkened streets of Mexico’s towns and dancing with ghosts until the small hours.
In the ancient pine forests of Michoacán a unique phenomenon coincides with Día de Muertos. Millions of monarch butterflies arrive having made their annual migration south in search of the protective warmth of the Mexican forests to overwinter far away from the chilly climes of the Canadian borderlands. For the villagers of Michoacán, the butterflies host the souls of their ancestors returning to the mortal plane in their own yearly migration. So strong is this belief that it is forbidden to snatch a butterfly out of the air before the night has passed lest you hamper the spirits’ journey.
Nearby in Lake Patzcuaro, embracing the butterfly as a symbol for the cyclical nature of life, death and metamorphosis, local fishermen row their boats out into the lake to perform a candlelit vigil on the Night of the Dead. Raising and lowering their nets to emulate the flight of the butterfly, the dancing fishermen appear on the water like floating ghosts.
All the noise, food, flowers and lights are a means to tempt the dead back to the world of the living so those still alive can comfort them with the knowledge that they are not forgotten. It is believed that the door to the underworld is through an archway of marigolds and this joyful bloom has become known as the flower of the dead. Its scent fills the streets as it is sold from towering piles along the roads and in the markets during the days leading up to the spirits’ arrival and the cemetery gates are garlanded welcoming revellers through death’s doorway.
The souls of loved ones are also welcomed back into the family home with elaborate altars heavy with offerings of sweet bread, sugar skulls, chocolate, alcohol, flowers, candles and photos of the deceased. Before the spirits arrive the air must be purified with the unmistakable sweet, thick smoke of burning copal, tree sap venerated by the Maya people of pre-hispanic Mesoamerica.
Why offer tears at the graveside of a loved one, when their spirit longs for laughter?