The Day of the Dead
The epitaph read: I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK. It was inscribed on one of perhaps a dozen tombstones clustered behind a wrought-iron fence festooned with cobwebs. One of the tombstones had been knocked over, and a skeleton was half-buried in the ground. I had happened upon a tableau seemingly inspired by an old Charles Addams cartoon, complete with a black-shrouded figure of Death lurking in the background, a big toothy grin on his bony face. This was no cemetery; it was the front lawn of a suburban split-level in New Jersey two weeks before Halloween, one of many cheerfully ghoulish neighborhood displays marking the occasion.
Halloween, along with Mardi Gras, is essentially a pagan revel that has all but eclipsed the solemn religious observance that immediately follows it. Its name is derived from "All Hallow's Eve" for the hallowed souls who are commemorated on All Saint's Day the next day. Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween appropriates elements of pagan practice that early Christian missionaries simply incorporated into their own religious observances. In northern Europe, Halloween was believed to be a time when denizens of the spirit world could make contact with the living. The pagan Celts left food out to welcome the dead, and they donned masks to ward off evil spirits. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead combines features of All Saint's Day with much earlier Aztec and Mayan festivals celebrating the lives of dead ancestors.
Long ago I visited a cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, north of Mexico City, and was shocked to see human bones strewn about. I was told that if a poor family could not afford to keep paying for the burial plot, the remains were disinterred to make room for a fresh occupant. The remains might be cremated or the bones placed in the grave of a relative nearby. Otherwise, as I discovered, they might be dumped unceremoniously in a back corner of the burial ground. At a museum in Guanajuato, not far away, mummified bodies unearthed from a local cemetery were on display for the edification of tourists, and you could buy colorful postcards showing a row of cadavers propped up against a wall.
The contrast in cultures on either side of the Rio Grande is no more starkly revealed than in their respective attitudes toward death. "The word death is not spoken aloud in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips," observed the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. "The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite toy and his most lasting love." The Day of the Dead is not a time of mourning but of celebration. Gravesites are tidied up and decorated for the arrival of departed relatives. Family members might bring along a picnic basket and a bottle of tequila to toast the deceased. Special treats are prepared in the shape of skulls or coffins, and a mass might be celebrated at the cemetery. Death is not treated as an outcast but as the life of the party.
Here is death without pretense. One day you die, and your body is placed in a hole in ground. If you happen to live south of the border, your final resting place is final only if your family can afford to pay. Otherwise, your bones might be tossed on a heap in the back of the cemetery to make way for the next tenant, or your mummified remains may be propped up like a drunkard against a wall to sell postcards to the tourists. Death is never prettified and therefore holds no horror when viewed in its true light. It just is what it is, another fact of life.