Graves decorated for Noche de los Muertos (Night of the Dead) in the Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán panteón (cemetery). These recent graves lie within easy sight of the yácatas (Purépecha pyramids, mid-center in the photograph) just across the road. The yácatas were formerly both a priestly burial site and the site of ancient Purépecha religious ceremonies.
This little car, decorated with cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, fruits, and pan de muertos (bread of the dead) in the shape of human figures, is the cemetery ofrenda (altar, or offering) for a baby born in October and dead in November 2005. Tiny white baby shoes are on the car's hood, along with a baby bottle. Click on any photo to enlarge it.
The faithful Purépecha believe that the angelitos, the dead children, are the first of the departed who come to re-visit their loved ones each year during the day of November 1, arriving at noon. Their parents take an ofrenda (offering) of fruit, candies, and wooden toys to the children's graves and invite the little ones to come and eat. Late in the night, the godfather of a dead child goes to the cemetery with an arco (arch) made of cempasúchil (marigolds). At home, the parents have already prepared beautiful altars to honor the memory and spirits of their children.
Each year, late in the night of November 1, the spirits of deceased adults make their way back to this earthly plane to visit their relatives. The living relatives, bearing food, bright golden flowers, strong drink, and other favorites of the dead, file into Purépecha cemeteries to commune with those who have gone before. The assembled lay out blankets, unfold chairs, bring out plastic cups, cartons of beer, a bottle of tequila, and assorted food for their own consumption as they settle in for the long, cold night of vigil.
Copal incense burns, calling the souls of the dead home. Candles, hundreds and hundreds of candles, flicker on and around the graves, showing the way home to the wandering spirits. Food--especially corn tamales and churipo, a beef soup for festivals--and other personal gifts to the 'visitors' show that the spirits are still valued members of their community. Special pan de muertos (bread of the dead) in the form of human bodies represents the relationship between the living and the dead. Fruits, including bananas, oranges, and limas, are hung on the ofrendas de cempasúchil to represent the relationship between nature and human beings.
This elaborate bóveda de cempasúchil ( marigold arch) hung with an old family photograph and topped by a feather dove (the symbol of the Holy Spirit) decorates a family grave. Under the photograph, an angel stands vigil.
Marigolds are used as symbols for their yellow color, which resembles the gold that was used as decoration for the ancient grand festivals. The flowers were used to adorn the visitor in the form of crowns or necklaces. Today, the belief is that the ofrendas de cempasúchil (marigold arches) aid the visiting spirits to identify their homes. Cempasúchil petals are also strewn over the bare earth mounds of the graves.
These modern coronas (wreaths) are made of ribbons and plastic, much more durable than fresh flowers. The brilliant colors eventually fade over the course of a year, but the wreaths will stay up till next October.
Cempasúchiles, pata de león (lion's paw, as cockscomb is known in this part of Michoacán), freshly cut gladiola, nube (baby's breath) and just-in-season wild orchids from the mountains are the flowers most commonly used on Tzintzuntzan's graves.
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My favorite ofrenda of 2009: a terrific full-size bicycle made of cempasúchiles, decorated with fruit--and with pineapple on the seat! The flowers at the base of the grave marker are wild orchids. This style figural ofrenda is very unusual.