Local Obsessions

Day of the Dead. It's a Party.

by Jennifer Kho
Day Skulls, candles, and marigolds adorn graves. Photos: Jennifer Kho.

OAXACA, Mexico – A mob of dead brides, cadaverous nuns, and dancing skeletons pushes me along the path into a cemetery filled with graves piled high with orange flowers, candles, and food. I'm in Oaxaca, Mexico, for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday festivity that lasts for days. Oaxacans are chatting, playing folk music on their guitars and, in some cases, praying by their family members' graves. At first, I can barely see the graves through the thick throng of tourists.

Travelers are trampling all over them, taking photos without asking, forgetting to offer condolences for the Oaxacans' losses. I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, and, when I speak with families holding their vigils, I apologize for my fellow travelers and ask if their behavior is annoying. Every person I ask seems surprised by the question.

Day of the Death, Mexico
Skeletons pose as dancers and musicians.
Day of the Death, Mexico
Skeleton dolls, flowers, and fruit decorate a large altar.

"Coming to the celebration for the dead shows respect for our customs," I'm told by Patricia Jimenez, an Oaxacan who sells handmade jewelry near the Santa Domingo church. "The more people there are, the better."

I seem to be alone in my discomfort. Oaxacans are talking with tourists, posing for photos, singing louder when visitors walk by. I realize my unease is the result of my own attitude toward death and my own preconceptions about the solemnity of a graveyard. Here in Mexico, on this day, the cemetery was a perfectly fine place for a party.

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