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night of the dead

The first day of November is Night of the Dead and we venture from our hilltop forest retreat into the local communities around the Patzcuaro Lake.

Day of the Dead rituals are a family affair in which people visit the graves of their relatives and spend the night in the graveyard among the spirits of their loved ones, eating and drinking. Given the essentially private nature of these celebrations we want to make sure we are welcome so we follow the advice given to us by our hosts at the Bosque Village and set out intending to visit three villages where we have been told visitors are welcome.

The first of these communities is Santa Ana. We arrive late afternoon and enter the village greeting the people we pass on the street. There is much communal sweeping and tidying up going on. Women with official looking lists stand on street corners surveying the scene or go from door to door checking on the preparations but very few of these people return our greetings and none at all meet our eyes. However, we finally manage to get directions to the cemetery.

We walk by a totally deserted, undecorated church before passing a small building on the main street with a short flight of stairs leading up to an open door. A row of robed skeletons and a profusion of flowers are visible. Lea hangs back but I go to the top of the stairs and regard the sepulchral scene without actually crossing the threshold before withdrawing. This is clearly a shrine dedicated to the somewhat sinister cult of Santa Muerte.

Feeling even less sure of ourselves than before we continue to make our way to the cemetery. The dirt on all the graves has been freshly turned giving the impression that all the occupants have been recently interred. Most have wreaths but no other decorations and there are only two groups present tending to graves. We circle the graveyard and the second group of people we pass enquires as to whether we have our own dead in the cemetery. Feeling somewhat abashed we reply in the negative and apologise if we are intruding.

“No, no,” the man insists. Then, musingly, he continues: “There are a lot of tourists around here. There are lots of rich Americans, too. Sometimes they get kidnapped and the kidnappers demand a lot of money to release them… But, you,…,you are just tourists. You don’t have to worry.”

We thank the man politely and make ourselves scarce as quickly as we can.

We are a little shaken by our first experience but decide, nonetheless, to persevere and visit the second  community on our list. We get off the bus and start walking up the hill into the village, relieved to receive a warm and spontaneous “Benvindos!” from the first group of people we pass.

We arrive at the cemetery where groups of people are congregating; some have clearly already been hard at work all day and are now putting the final touches to the graves they are decorating while others are still arriving bearing bunches of flowers and candles and baskets containing food and drink. We sit by the gate watching the scene in the gathering dark.

Every house is decorated.

The village graveyard.

Night falls and the candles are lit.

Relatives spend the night in the cemetery with the spirits of their loved ones.

Candles light the scene.

Sitting by the entrance at the rear of the cemetery we overhear the conversation of one group hard at work decorating a grave – they are clearly native English speakers and we are curious to know their story.

Close to the church, at the main entrance to the graveyard, I come across an beautifully decorated altar against the church wall. A sign above informs me that this altar is for all the souls who have been forgotten. I stand there contemplating my own neglected dead.

I am still by the altar of the otherwise overlooked souls when the American woman we overhead earlier walks by. I approach her and inquire, as discreetly as I am able, about the grave she has decorated. She tells me she lives in the community and that while her house was being built a human skeleton was discovered. She managed to get these remains buried in the village cemetery, with all the appropriate rites, and she pays homage to this unknown soul on the Night of the Dead. This year, she says, some mysterious person left flowers and offerings on the grave.

A sign above this altar informs me that it has been created for all the souls that have been forgotten.

The offerings are quite generous - beer and food is plentiful for the forgotten souls.

The church is open but most of the action is happening outside in the graveyard.

Finally, we make our way back to Erongaricuaro, were, after indulging in some excellent pizza and gelato, we make our way to the third cemetery of the day. The scene here is more raucous, groups of teenagers sit around open fires, drinking and singing. Children play chase among the tombs. Firecrackers pop and crackle in the darkness.

A mass of white flowers completely cover a tomb.

More candles in the form of a cross decorate another tomb.

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