This article first appeared in THE IRISH POST on October 26th 2017
THE IRISH DO DEATH WELL. Despite radical changes in the way we work and live, we haven’t lost the instinct to see it as a tragedy that affects the whole community, an event that should be shared rather than confined to a hidden, lonely place within the family.
When my father died those that attended the removal of the remains included his chiropodist and my mother’s hairdresser. They only stayed a few minutes, just long enough to murmur ‘sorry for your trouble’ and complete a round of hand shaking. Then they went off again into the November night having missed an episode of favourite soap perhaps or the family supper.
Carrying on as usual is often seen in England as evidence of psychological fortitude while in Ireland comparative strangers drop the routines of normal life because of a death in the wider community. I’ve been involved in funerals on both sides of the Irish Sea and know that the such gestures give grace and dignity to the leaving of life.
It could be argued though that Mexicans do death even better than the Irish. They certainly do it bigger and with more colour and dash. Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a vibrant national festival, second only to Christmas in the calendar and like Christmas it is a time of celebration and parties – the fact that some take place in the cemetery doesn’t take away from the joy of the occasion. Mexican have discovered a way of laughing at death.
This time last year I was in Mexico staying at Arquetopia, an international not-for-profit arts foundation which aimed to give writers and artists a better understanding of a festival that we probably all know best for the popular images that have become a design cliché. Grinning skulls sprouting flowers are printed on curtains, dresses and t-shirts. I had a Day-of-the-Dead tablecloth long before I knew anything about it or thought of making the 15 hour flight. It has become a tourist attraction, especially for American holidaymakers, but I had the privilege of not simply observing, but also participating. I danced at a village disco to a mariachi band, helped build a household altar and walked through a cemetery late at night when the living outnumbered the dead.
The scent of marigolds saturates the air of Mexico in late October. The flowers are everywhere and market stalls groan under their gentle weight. They are needed because the dry, peppery smell rouses the dead from their graves and guides them back to the places where they once sat and talked, drank and ate. Household altars decorated with orange petals welcome their return and every town hall, village square, bar, and hotel foyer erects its own tribute. Even owners of new builds prepare an offering in case the long dead who once lived on the land beneath their feet decide to return.
The Mexican writer and political commentator Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, noted that in most of the world death is a taboo subject:
“The Mexican on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it, it is one of his favourite playthings and his most enduring love.”
In the residential arts centre where I was staying – in reality a comfortable country house in central Mexico – photographs of the dead were arranged on an homemade altar alongside carefully chosen treats they would want on their annual visit. I hadn’t come prepared. I brought nothing of my husband’s with me, hadn’t thought it would be appropriate, but I was urged to join in. That’s why a Brighton and Hove bus pass came to be displayed in a rural enclave where the only transport is communal taxis, tuk tuks and horses. I had kept the bus pass because I like the quizzical expression on my husband’s face, as if he was surprised to discover he was old enough to qualify for one. There was no red wine to offer him, but a colleague, a journalist from New Orleans, donated two cigarettes and these were placed in front of his picture. Elsewhere on the altar a plastic rattle nestled among a scattering of marigold petals and sugar skulls. It was for the stillborn son of the young woman who came every day to cook our lunch.
The tradition of Día de Muertos is much more than a Latin American version of Halloween. Its roots can be traced back to the Mexico that existed before Columbus and Catholicism reached North America. I visited the ruins of Mitla, a city that the Zapotec people once believed was a gateway between the living and the dead. It’s population peaked at around 10,000 in the middle ages.- bigger than Dublin at the same time – and the royal family, nobility and high priests buried there became cloud people who could intercede with the Gods on behalf of the population down below.
The Zapotecs worshipped the goddess Huitzilopochotli with food, incense and flowers on a special holiday when the dead were believed to visit earth again. Catholic clergy who arrived in the 16th century as part of the Spanish invasion took the summer festival and moved it to All Saints and All Souls day, October 31st and November 1st.
In modern Mexico the face of La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull) can be seen everywhere. She walks the streets in the costumes of adults and children, rides in pageants and smiles from posters, menus and wall art. She is death herself and some historians have made a link with the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead. But her current manifestation is dressed like a Downton Abbey dowager and underscores how democratic death is: we all die, the rich along with the poor, the aristocratic lady and the peasant woman.
This year the Day of the Dead will take on a darker tone. In September two major earthquakes hit Mexico, killing nearly 400 and injuring thousands. Aftershocks are still occurring and Mexicans are reminded almost daily that they live in one of the most earthquake prone regions of the world.
There is nothing contradictory in mourning the dead with a mixture of gaiety and heartfelt grief. Mexican traditions vary from region to region, but they all ensure that loved ones are not only remembered, they are held close, and remain part of the family and the community.
I walked among the graves at Oaxaca city cemetery on the night of October 31st. Headstones had been scrubbed, marble polished and coloured lights added the previous week. Tonight was for grave visiting and nimble-footed mariachi bands moved from one paying graveside engagement to another, playing the same tune I first heard at the village disco. Some families were planning to stay until dawn and came with food, foldaway chairs and ipads for the children.
Candles illuminated every grave, including those which had no visitors. I noticed one niche was devoted to those who had perished in a cholera epidemic in the 1820s. It reminded me of the story told by Mel Brooks – the Jewish American comedian who also comes from a culture that knows how to deal with death. When his father died he was perturbed by the number of people who came up to him to express their sorrow. ‘So sad you’ve lost your father they’d say, and I had to explain again and again that we liked my father. If he had been lost we would have gone out and found him. He died.’
A candle burned for the cholera victims in Oaxaca last year and I am sure one will be lit this year, even though more recent tragedies are at the forefront of people’s concerns. The cholera victims died nearly 200 years, but they have never been lost.