Wednesday, November 02, 2016

in the dead of the night

"If you go to Pátzcuaro, you are going to see the real thing: how the Indians celebrated Day of the Dead before the Spanish invaded."

I must have heard a variation on that theme from at least a dozen people before I first witnessed how the villages around Lake
Pátzcuaro celebrated their Night of the Dead. That was four years ago.
My experience was memorable enough that I returned for another round this week. Even though I had researched the customs and practices before I came last time, I was caught off guard by the reality of the night.

That is probably inevitable for anyone diving into the deep end of another people's cultural pool. I was interested to see if the night would feel as foreign as it was the first time.

First, we need to get some terms out of the way. Using words like "real" and "authentic" are not very helpful when discussing the Night of the Dead. The manner of the celebration in all parts of Mexico, is "real" and "authentic," no matter how it is celebrated, for the people who are celebrating.

Even "traditional" is not a very accurate adjective. What we saw on Tuesday night was how the individual Purépecha families in each cemetery celebrate their deceased family members.

And, even though the Purépecha have retained a lot of their pre-Conquest traditions (as far as anthropologists can ascertain), the church squeezed the customs through the Catholic sausage grinder. Each of the Mexican pre-Conquest tribes celebrated their dead on different nights.

Rather than attempt to stamp out what the priests saw as a pagan ritual, the church conducted a hostile takeover by requiring all the tribes to celebrate on a day of the church's choosing -- All Saints' Day. Not being content with that bit of cultural fascism, the church also required that all altars must contain at least one Catholic religious symbol.

And that brings us to this year.

Our first visit Tuesday morning was to the village of Tzintzuntzan. The daylight stop was designed to let us orient ourselves to the lay of the land (both figuratively and literally -- Mexican cemeteries are not billiard table level) in the daylight.

The cemetery was filled with families lugging cans of water and bundles of the traditional flowers (marigold, cockscomb, and baby's breath) to decorate the graves of their relatives.

This year I did something different. I engaged people in conversation. Because I now can.

Mind you, we did not discuss the subtleties of transubstantiation. But we did discuss the concept of resurrection. I was interested in how a hope of resurrection interfaces with the concept of the spirits of the dead returning to visit their families on the night of 1 November. What I heard interlaced with my somewhat unorthodox theology.

Each of them told me tales of their relatives. Two widows who lost their husbands this year. An elderly man who buried his wife and son side by side ten years ago. A Texas couple and brother who were honoring her parents -- returning from up north every year for the ritual.

That was the point. For all of the talk of tradition, this is a time for individual families to honor their dead as well as their relationships with one another.

And when the sun goes down, that truth comes to life. And it did.

We were scheduled to visit cemeteries in three villages around Lake Pátzcuaro: Cucuchucho, Ihuatzio, and Tzurumutaro. We did not make it to Ihuatzio because of the traffic caused by the likes of us. But that gave us more time to enjoy Tzurumutaro's rightly-acclaimed cemetery.

The two cemeteries were a good choice to let us experience the similarities and differences of the two villages -- at least, in their celebration of the Night of the Dead. Even though they are only a few miles from one another.

What they shared was a sense of mysterious mysticism -- that religious phenomenon that once infused the halls of medieval monasteries.

A large part of that mysticism was the result of the lighting. It is no accident that Peter Jackson used candles to represent the mysteries of the elves. Candles speak to something deep in our souls, reminding us of the continuity of our humanity through oral traditions shared around a clan fire.

For the Purépecha, the candles are guides to light the deceased's way back to the family.

Candles were one of the great differences between the two cemeteries. Most graves at Cucuchucho were lit by tall candles. The ceremonial type you would find in most Catholic churches.

At Tzurumutaro, the preference was for the glass-enclosed votive candles.

The second obvious similarity was the flowers. The graves were primarily decorated with orange marigolds, red cockscombs, and white baby's breath. But pampas grass plumes showed up in profusion, as well, at Tzurumutaro.

In Cucuchucho, I talked with a woman who had buried three relatively young sons there this year. Long ago, I learned that circumstances often telegraph that a question of "How?" is to be avoided in certain societies. It was difficult not to feel her loss, even though peals of laughter often made their way across
the cemetery. It was not entirely a time of loss filled with remorse.

That was something else that struck me on this trip. The amount of laughter -- not just from children, but from adults. Mainly women. Adding a musical lilt to the evening's respect for life.

Tzurumutaro reminded me that all traditions either change with time or they die. This unique decoration -- unlike any of the others -- was on the grave of a mother who had died a decade ago. Her two sons told me the figures were her favorites, and they summed up their respect for her. Not to miss a nod to modernity, they lit it with LED lights. My friend Jordan would have appreciated the technology.

There was only one sour note. Our guide told me, about two years ago, children with plastic pumpkins started prowling the entryway of both cemeteries in search of money from the hands of unwary northerners. Essentially, adding the worst part of Halloween to the old tradition. Several Mexicans I talked with were embarrassed at the beggary on that special night

We are now in Guadalajara. And I am heading to bed before a tour of the city in the morning and a furniture shopping trip in the afternoon.

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