A Lesson from the Day of the Dead

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Time comes to a halt on All Souls Day (Todos Santos), November 2, a day of ancient ritual.

I learned that lesson when I spent the day with a Mexican family in Puebla, Mexico.

To miss this celebration of death was simply unheard of. Our place was the cemetery, where the grandparents lay under thick slabs of cement, their fading photographs a testimony to the relative shortness and impermanence of earthly life.

After packing up various mole sauces, tortillas, pozole, candied squash, pan de muertos made into human shapes, tamales, tequila, and fresh fruit, I rode in a taxi to the cemetery with the rest of the family. After scrubbing off lichen, stains, bird droppings, and weeding around the graves, I helped to spread out the colorful tablecloth  on top of family graves. And there we picnicked. Putting fresh marigolds and burning candles on the graves, seeing old friends attending the graves of their loved ones, sharing reminisces, and telling stories, no one needed to go anywhere else. And no one expected them to.

That day, the sun shone like the star it is. But the chill air, around 60 degrees, promised the gray, drizzly days of late November to come. I pulled my black and gray rebozo tighter around me to keep out the wind as I sipped the corn-thickened atole. Night came. And still the singing, the chanting, continued. The blazing candles cast eerie shadows over the smiling faces of the people, and leaves rustled at their feet.

How differently we “norteamericanos” view death!

© 2012 C. Bertelsen