Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Living and the Dead

…And on the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.


It was November 1st, el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Chris met me in Cuernavaca, where the Lutheran Center was putting us up for the night in a tranquil Catholic retreat center. When we arrived in the evening the workers in the retreat center – the cooks, gardeners, gringa volunteers, and one Dominican sister – had lit the candles for their ofrenda.

The ofrenda, the traditional way to welcome the coming dead, looked like this: Two tables of different heights, like a little staircase, stood at one wall, covered with white tablecloth and colorful papel picado and laden with bright orange marigolds (here called cempasúchitl or simply flores del muerto – flowers of the dead), sugar skulls, sugar crosses, bread (pan de muerto), fruit, peanuts, and even a bowl of molé. At the back of the ofrenda table, leaned against the wall, was a frame with seven or eight photos in it. In the photos were loved ones who had died – a grandmother, a husband, a co-worker, even a family pet.

It was only a little larger than the one I had seen earlier in the home of my host family. When I arrived on Friday evening, there it was, next to the kitchen table, white tablecloth, papel picado, two big pots of marigolds, some bread and fruit, a dish with rice and a chicken leg covered in mole, and a shot of tequila. It was for a grandpa, an aunt, and an uncle; a photo of each of them lay propped up on the ofrenda. A candle was lit, too, and stayed burning all night long.

It is a privilege, a blessing to be witness to something so intimate. Yet every year the people of Ocotepec, a little village just outside of Cuernavaca, invite the world to be a part of their Dia de los Muertos. The Dominican sister gave us a brief explanation of how it would go down. Thousands of people walk the streets, lining up outside the homes of those who had died in the last year, waiting to be invited in, to see the ofrenda and pay their respects and maybe hear a story about the person who had died, to offer a candle to the family, to drink a little ponche and eat some tamale, and then: on to the next house.

We began at Ocotepec’s church, the Iglesia del Divino Salvador. In the daylight it might have looked like any other gorgeous hundreds-of-years-old church – they are in every village in Mexico, a holy wonder of the world spread out over an entire country. But as we walked under the arched entrance we could see that the place had been transformed for this night. A path of shredded orange marigolds, lit by candles in paper bags, lined the path to the church. Off to the left, in the courtyard, a ring of candles market the spot where indigenous dances were being carried out, a blur of masks and feathers and drumbeats. We walked on into the church, where a massive ofrenda lay between the pews and the altar. Had a priest died in the last year? No: This ofrenda, complete with a photo of the deceased, was for the parish sacristan, who had died only months ago after serving as sacristan for fifty-five years.

We left the church and walked to the first house, stopping to buy some candles along the way. An archway of orange marigolds marked the entrance, and a sign over the door read Bienvenido Papa: Esta es tu casa – Welcome Dad: This is your house. On the Dia de los Muertos, the dead are said to make an annual return to visit their homes, so this homemade sign welcomed back a father who had died within the last twelve months. But the words “this is your house” also welcomed the long line of people filing in underneath the flowery archway in the darkness.

Again the path to the ofrenda was lined with shredded orange marigolds and lit by candles in brown paper bags. Inside the ofrenda looked like this: A bed, with clothes of the deceased, including shoes, laid out on the bed to look as if the person was lying in it. Where the head would be there was a life-size sugar skull, complete with decorative eyes and teeth. Candles surrounded the bed. At the foot of the bed was food, and lots of it. A whole chicken in a pot of mole, bowls and baskets overflowing with fruits and vegetables, side dishes galore, a case of Victoria (a dark beer made in Mexico), a case of Coca-Cola, and a whole bottle of tequila. It was as if the dead man were not just returning alone but bringing all of his friends from Mictlan, the land of the dead, for a party, the living and the dead together for one night a year. We accepted our own party favors – a cup of ponche (a punch usually made of pear, apple, guayaba, and sometimes spiked with liquor) and a hot chicken tamale and sat down with other visitors in white plastic chairs.

Over several hours we made our way through seven or eight homes, standing in long lines at each one. One man’s sugar skull wore a gray White Sox hat; another man’s photo featured him with a guitar he must have loved in life – and then there was the guitar itself, set out next to the bed, as if the dead man, upon returning, might pick it up and begin to play for all of his guests. Favorite clothes, favorite musical instruments, favorite foods – all were laid out with care, ready for the homecoming.

Despite the colorful fiesta atmosphere, a few nearly choked us up. At one there was an archway made entirely of flowers that spelled out “Bienvenida Mama! – Welcome Mom!” On the way in there were draped purple-and-white decorations lovingly made entirely by hand out of straws and construction paper. The mother’s clothes, laid out on her bed in a lifelike pose with a giant sugar skull at the head, included a traditional-looking apron, with little white shoes at her feet. Chris said it was like you could almost see a person’s life, right there in their clothes: This woman spent her life in the kitchen – or maybe on the street, where we have seen so many women in these indigenous-style aprons, selling little candies and knick-knacks. She was the kind of woman you normally wouldn’t notice, unless you were waving off her attempts to sell you a necklace or a pack of Chiclets. But here she lay, beloved, surrounded by colorful flowers and bright candles, with food at her feet, a thousand strange people walking by the ofrenda her family had created to welcome her home.

And the smells, the smells were overwhelming. There were the flowers, fresh flowers everywhere, always brightly colored, usually orange. And the food, some of it still cooking. We imagined these families, gathering together in the days leading up to this weekend, working together to make hundreds of tamales by hand, for visitors they didn’t even know, including some like us, from other countries, who must have looked like garish tourists.

But on this night, here in little Ocotepec and all over Mexico, we all were welcomed warmly, offered a hot drink and a little something to eat. No distinction was made between the friend and the foreigner, the rich and the poor, the spirit and the flesh, the living and the dead. Gracias a Dios.