Monday, September 23, 2013

Day Of The Dead In Oaxaca, Mexico

Last year, my husband and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations.  It was a most interesting cultural experience and it challenged us to re-examine our own attitudes toward death and dying.

Here I am, beading, in my temporary "studio" in Oaxaca.

We were impressed that the Day of the Dead was not a mournful occasion at all.  Death was seen as a natural part of the circle of life and included the assurance that loved ones lived on as spiritual beings.  The Day of the Dead offered an occasion to feel reunited with the deceased and to celebrate the good times and memories that you had shared.

In our culture the picture above would be considered macabre. But the candle is just there to light the way for the returning souls to find their way home.  Long pathways are lined with marigolds which also help guide the returning spirits to their proper destination.

Preparation for the Day of the Dead began at least a week ahead.  The markets started filling up with sugar skulls and "pan de muerte", which are loaves of bread with a cross of bones made of bread, decorating the top.  We also saw large loaves of bread with candy faces placed in them.  We inquired about these and were told that the faces represented the returning dead ones and the bread was to give them sustenance on their long journey.

Elaborate altars for the dead started appearing in alcoves around the city and many people built private altars in their homes. One of the larger churches in town filled their huge courtyard with sand "paintings" depicting skeletons dancing, talking and carrying on life as usual. The large sand paintings were rimmed with bright orange marigolds and lit with hundreds of candles on the night of November the 2nd.  Bands were playing and there were singers and dancers.  Vendors hawking snacks and drinks were working the crowd.  Lovers found dark corners where the could make out.  Little kids got balloons and were allowed to stay up late.  It was definitely a gala event.

The Day of the Dead is actually 2 days.  November 1st is to remember children who have departed from this earth and November 2nd is for adults.  People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of their loved ones.  They bring lawn chairs and instruments so they can sing together through the evening. Graves are cleaned up and decorated with flowers.  Children's graves are festooned with toys and balloons. People bring offerings of the things the deceased enjoyed in life.  Often adults' graves will have offerings of tequila or cigarettes and items from the deceased one's work or favorite hobby such as knitting needles or a gardener's trowel. Yah, I know, my grave would have to be covered with beads, so I could be happy in the next life!!!

Hundreds of beaded necklaces for sale in the market surrounding the downtown 
plaza or "zocolo".  I'd want to bring these along on my journey to the afterlife.  
I might take along a bottle or 2 of tequila, too!

We spent a magical evening in the city's largest cemetery. Many of the graves were elaborately decorated.  Sand paintings, hand built altars and marigolds rimmed the edges of the outer walkways.   Women passed out cups of thick, spiced hot chocolate and all the pathways through the cemetery were illuminated by candles.  There was a very large mausoleum on the grounds and every niche was lighted with a candle - literally thousands of candles.  It was an amazing sight to behold.  This picture is just a tiny portion of the mausoleum.

I think the most important thing we took away from this experience is that rather than death being a fearful, hush-hush topic, it is openly embraced.  Americans don't do death very well.  We use euphemisms (he passed on) and we stumble with difficulty, trying to find words of comfort for those who are dying and for those who mourn.  In contrast, the Day of the Dead is forthright and pragmatic (leaving cigarettes for the deceased) as well as spiritual, (belief in an afterlife).  The celebration demonstrates the love and respect that people feel for their departed elders and although it is about death, it is a celebration that is infused with joy and life.

AJE member, Diana Ptaszynski, is hosting a Day of the Dead/Halloween blog hop.  Sign-ups are open from now until September 26th.  To read about the details, visit Diana's blog. I received an awesome, handmade brass sugar skull pendant from Staci Smith, when I was at Bead Fest.  I will be designing a necklace with it for the blog hop.

Need some inspiration?  This should get you started!

Unique paper sugar skull beads by Gillian McMurray.

Ceramic Day of the Dead skull by Erratics.

Jenny DaviesReazor has a large selection of Day of the Dead focals.  Here is one of my favorites.

Bright green lampwork glass skull by Bastille Bleu.  This shop also has a wide selection of Halloween themed beads.

This ceramic sugar skull, by Firefly Design Studio, comes with matching accent beads.

So now that you have a sample of a few of the resources out there, I encourage you to visit Diana's blog and sign up for the Day of the Dead/Halloween blog hop.  It will be a real celebration!



  1. I love Oaxaca, and you've made me want to go back in November (somehow!) for this celebration!

  2. What a wonderful look at the Day of the Dead celebration! I think I must add this trip to my to-do list!

  3. Thank you for that journey. I have always wanted to celebrate the life of my loved ones who have gone on but others seem to think it is weird.

    1. I don't think it is weird! Its nice to celebrate the love and good memories.

  4. What a wonderful trip to take... definitely one for my list! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I love everything about Oaxaca. What a great trip to take, especially during the dia de los muertos festivities. My ex is from there and we would celebrate here in the states. My friends thought we were crazy, but it was a great experience. I wish I could have gone to Oaxaca to take it all in.

  6. Thank you for this great look into the Day of the Dead!

  7. Great post Linda! that must have been so cool to see in person

  8. Great post! I felt like I was there with you.

  9. Awesome post! I don't know why...but I seem to love skulls/Day of the Dead. Thanks Linda for all the information!

  10. Hi Linda,
    Thanks for sharing your photos, we celebrate the day of the dead every year. I love seeing how it is celebrated in MX.
    Lori in Atlanta

  11. Loved this post. I now have a new appreciation for the Day of the Dead and I see some of these wonderful sugar skulls in my future.


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