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 (Purhépecha pyramids, mid-center in the photograph) just across the road. The yácatas, dating to as early as 900 A.D., were formerly both a priestly burial site and the site of ancient Purhépecha religious ceremonies.
Rituals for the traditional Noche y Día de los Muertos (Night and Day of the Dead) take place all over Mexico on the night of November 1 and the day of November 2. One of the best-known celebrations of this enormously important spiritual holiday takes place in the town of Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán. A visit to the town cemetery on November 2 gives just a small idea of the beauty of the events. During this very Mexican, very special festival, the dead--at least in spirit--pay a visit to their loved ones here on earth. In an article in 2005, The New York Times quoted Mexico Cooks! as saying, "It's about mutual nostalgia: the living remember the dead, and the dead remember the taste of home."
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 2005 and dead the same November. Tiny white baby shoes are on the car's hood, along with a baby bottle. Click on any photo to enlarge it.
The faithful Purhépecha 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 early in the evening. 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 a boveda (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 Purhépecha 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, its mystic scent 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 for the 'visitors' show the spirits that they are still valued members of their community. Special Purhépecha-style pan de muertos (bread of the dead) in the form of human bodies represents the relationship between the living and the dead. Seasonal 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.
During the Día y Noche de Muertos fiesta, a loved one's grave becomes a place to pray, party, and reminisce. Candles, a glass of water to quench the deceased person's thirst, a bottle of his or her favorite liquor, and favorite foods such as mole or tamales, pan de muertos, calabaza en tacha, and seasonal fresh fruits are always placed on the grave. Baskets of favorite foods, prepared especially for the spirits of deceased family members, are covered with beautiful hand-embroidered cloths. The spirits partake of the food's essence; the living gather at the grave to partake of the material food.
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 flor de las ánimas (flowers of the souls--wild orchids) from the mountains are the flowers most commonly used on Tzintzuntzan's graves.
My favorite ofrenda of 2009: a terrific full-size bicycle made of cempasúchiles, decorated with various fruits--including a pineapple on the seat! The flowers at the base of the grave marker are flores de las ánimas (wild orchids). This elaborate style of figural ofrenda is very unusual.
Looking for a tailored-to-your-interests specialized tour in Mexico? Click here: Tours.