“The Night of the Dead”
Lives on in Patzcuaro, Mexico
By Carol L. Bowman
The pristine sky glistened with starry constellations, while the half moon’s glow showed the way. Mist rose from Lake Patzcuaro and a chilly midnight breeze whipped around our necks. Captain Fidel moored his launch, the Carmela, through the darkness from Patzcuaro pier toward our anticipated destination. We passed by Janitzio Island where boat after boat deposited hundreds of visitors coming to see the November 2nd, ‘Night of the Dead’ celebration on Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. The noisy crowds and hawking vendors on shore resembled a spectator event. We had hoped for a more solemn experience and we sighed with relief as Fidel veered our boat away from the confusion.
Our eyes searched across the black water, until an empty dock emerged from the lake’s edge. The eerie quiet beckoned us and Fidel moored the boat alongside the pier, securing the line on a flimsy pole.
After disembarking, we lumbered up steep stone steps to a high plateau, where we spotted village children ringing the church bells. The reverberating sound shattered the silence, calling departed souls to return. Elderly P’urhepecha women, wrapped in traditional black and neon blue rebozos, pushed wheelbarrows piled with grave offerings over the rutty path toward the cemetery entrance. We entered through the illuminated adobe arch as quiet intruders, but hoped to be accepted as witnesses of this solemn vigil of the Mexican tribute to death. The ritual of “El Dia del los Muertos”, the Day of the Dead, actually starts at midnight, the Night of the Dead.
The funerary wakes practiced by the P’urhepechas, (known as Tarascans in pre-Hispanic times) interwoven with Catholic ceremonies honoring the dead on Nov. 1, All Saints Day and Nov. 2, All Souls Day, resulted in a blended religious event for the indigenous communities in Mexico. Celebrations begin October 31st when families gather flowers, candles, food and other offerings to prepare home and gravesite altars. November 1st represents the day of the “Little Angels” vigil for deceased children, followed by a midnight to dawn gravesite wake for departed adults on November 2nd. The celebration of mass and feast of offerings at the cathedral on the Day of the Dead, November 2nd concludes the commemoration.
The sanctity of the cemetery on that late night gave an aura of solemn homage. Handmade, three foot candles, which lined gravesites covered with marigold petals, provided a lighted path for the departed soul’s journey back to their loved ones. Simple, wooden altars, wrapped tight with flowers, acted as headstones. Favorite foods, candies, sugared skulls and even articles of clothing worn by the deceased decorated the altars. Bottles of Tequila stood ready on the graves for souls, thirsty from their long journey.
The vivid orange marigolds or cempoalxoachitl, representing the sun’s glow, bounced off the candlelight and brightened the 2 AM sky.
The smoky smell of copal wood fires lingered and families huddled on the frosty ground, faces showing grief, pride, even joy. The sensual and emotional bombardments proved staggering.
To reduce the impact of our ‘tourist invasion,’ we brought gifts of flowers and tall candles which we had purchased earlier on the street corners of Patzcuaro. Instead of being gawkers with cameras, we hoped to modify our role to “participant” by presenting our offerings to mourners.
I searched the faces of gravesite family members for a prospective recipient of our gifts. Economic means showed, even here. Families with sufficient funds adorned altars with elaborate offerings, while others managed only a few flickers of light, no altar and a sparse bunch of posies. Grief can never be measured by excess.
A lone P’urhepecha woman, her traditional shawl drawn tightly to ward off the night’s chill and the loneliness, sat beside a newly-dug grave. She stared into the darkness, motionless. A recent wound, no doubt, a fresh loss. Other graves sites overflowed with relatives who rejoiced at the prospect of their loved one’s soul returning to greet them for a night.
I spotted an elderly man, adorning a grave with three candles while his wife, murmured out loud in P’urhepecha language, perhaps trying to communicate with the spirit of the deceased. At least twenty candles lined the gravesite next to them, with twelve relatives waiting to greet a lost soul. The visual comparison cemented which family would receive my offering.
I approached the old gentleman, and offered the long, waxed stick and flowers we brought. “Quisiera darle a su familia un regalo.” (I would like to give your family this gift.) He smiled with gentle understanding, dug the soft earth to receive the candle and motioned for me to sit with the family. His wife, in halting Spanish, said they visit the grave of her husband’s father every year. This dedication to departed family members for generations awed me. I wondered how many people from my culture would sit by a grave from midnight to dawn on the frigid ground at 6000 feet above sea level to await the return a family member’s soul. I knew the answer - none.
One other scene imprinted an indelible mark; the gravesite of a child. Favorite toys intertwined the marigold decked altar. The mother tended to every detail with deliberate precision, as she sang a soft lullaby to her young son, gone from her arms. Thankfully, I seemed invisible in her grief.
We walked among the dead, but I have never experienced a cemetery so full of life. The positive energy expended to maintain contact with deceased loved ones, reveals the extraordinary nature of the Mexican people. I shall not soon forget the images of that night; that grieved stare, the offer to a gringa to sit awhile, the frosty boat ride across Lake Patzcuaro. Experiencing the Night of the Dead has changed my view of death.