“All Souls’ Day dawned cool, and the people of Grace put on their sweatshirts and gave thanks. The heat wave was broken. By half past eight the sun was well up and sweatshirts peeled off again, but it was still a perfect day.
Every able-bodied person in Grace climbed the canyon roads to converge on the cemetery.
It was the bittersweet Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, democratic follow-up to the Catholic celebration of All Hallows. Some people had business with the saints on November 1, and so went to mass, but on November 2 everybody had business at the graveyard. The families traipsing slowly uphill resembled harvester ants, carrying every imaginable species of real and artificial flowers: bulging grocery sacks of chrysanthemums and gladioli; tulips made from blue and pink Styrofoam egg cartons; long-stemmed silk roses bouncing in children’s hands like magic wands; and unclassifiable creations out of fabric and colored paper and even the plastic rings from six-packs. . .
Most families divided their time between the maternal and paternal lines, spending mornings on one set of graves and afternoons on the other. Emelina and the boys staked out the Domingos plot and set to work sweeping and straightening. One of the graves, a great uncle of J.T.’s named Vigilancio Domingos, was completely bordered with ancient-looking tequila bottles, buried nose down. Mason and I spent half the morning gathering up the strays and resetting them all in the dirt, as straight as teeth. It was a remarkable aesthetic –I don’t mean just Uncle Vigilancio, but the whole. Some graves had shrines with niches peopled by saints; some looked like botanical gardens of paper and silk; others had the initials of loved ones spelled out on the mound in white stones.
The unifying principle was that the simplest thing was done with the greatest care. It was a comfort to see this attention lavished on the dead. In these families you would never stop being loved.”
In Kingsolver’ s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ she writes of the Day of the Dead:
“Dia de los Muertos is still an entirely happy ritual of remembering one’s departed loved ones, welcoming them into the living room by means of altars covered with photographs and other treasured things that bring memory into the present. Families also visit cemeteries to dress up the graves. I’ve seen plots adorned not just with flowers but also seashells, coins, toys, the Blessed Virgin, cigarettes, and tequila bottles. (To get everybody back, you do what you have to do.) Then the family members set out a picnic, often directly on top of a grave, and share reminiscences about the full cast of the beloved dead, whether lured in by the flowers or the tequila, and it’s the best party of the year. Food is the center of this occasion, especially aromatic dishes that are felt to nourish spiritual presence…”
The holiday had its roots among the Aztecas as an homage to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, who rules the underworld. Thus, graves, alters (ofrendas) and cemetery archways are often decorated with masses of Mexican marigolds known cempasúchil (originally named cempoaxochitl, Nāhuatl for “twenty flowers”). In modern Mexico the marigold is sometimes called Flor de Muerto (Flower of Dead). These flowers are thought to attract souls of the dead to the offerings. Some say that the cempasúchil are the flowers of 400 lives, and that the scent of their petals creates a pathway for the souls to visit the ofrendas and return to their graves.
It’s a day for reminiscences of the departed, anecdotes, and often humorous. Sugar and ceramic skulls, muertos (bread of the dead) and skeletons abound. Some areas spend Nov. 1 honoring their dead children (Día de los Inocentes) and Nov. 2 as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (the deceased).
Some cities hold festive parades in which participants dress and wear masks, paint their faces…to honor those who’ve already made their journeys to the great and mysterious beyond.