As we walked over the hill into San Juan de Chamula, at first I wasn’t sure we were in the right place. We were supposed to be visiting a cemetery for the Day of the Dead, but it seemed to me like we had accidentally ended up at some sort of festival or concert. There was music and bright colors and the smell of incense and flowers in the air. Every single resident of the pueblo had gathered in that one spot. There were so many people, I didn’t even notice the graves they were standing on. If I paid attention, I could see that every grave had been made to look as if it were freshly dug, then covered with pine needles and marigold petals. Priests went around blessing the graves while families congregated around them, laughing, telling stories, drinking, and singing. Yes, there were people crying, but there was no shortage of shoulders to cry on. If they grieved, they did so together. It was a time to celebrate the lives of those who had passed on, not a time to mourn loss. They showed this by pouring the dead a drink, laying it on the grave, and toasting with them before taking a sip.
Later on, we visited another pueblo that had built its cemetery on top of a mountain so as to be closer to God. It was a flower village and every headstone was decorated with immense bouquets. The villagers wore hand-embroidered shawls in hues of purple and blue, adding to color on the mountains. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. An image of a stereotypical cemetery in an American movie flashed into my head. There were scraggly trees and a fog that made everything more eerie. It was empty except for a haggard old groundskeeper and one lonely mourner in a black coat standing over a grave. A crow cawed, but other than that there was no sound. Looking around me, I couldn’t believe that the rainbow of flowers and people was just as much a cemetery as the one in my head. Why would anyone ever choose the cold, grey one over this? I never knew death could be so beautiful until that day.
That night I sat in a street-side café with some friends, eating Nutella-filled pan de muertos and drinking frothy Mexican hot chocolate, and watching children “trick-or-treat” for money in calavera masks singing “somos los angelitos, del cielo bajamos….” Every restaurant was decorated with streamers, lanterns, and plastic skeletons and every store had an altar by the front door. Pine needles decorated the ground and the fresh mountain air smelled of sweets and incense.
Mexicans think of death much differently than we do in the United States. In the U.S. death is cold and gray and lonely, like cemeteries. You’re allowed to grieve for a little while, but after an indefinite amount of time, society expects you to magically get over it and go back to normal life. You’re supposed to shove your feelings down so that they don’t make the people around you feel uncomfortable. And if, God forbid, you ever mention you’ve lost somebody out loud, be prepared for a lot of awkward silence and people staring at their feet. Better to just not talk about it. If you’re feeling really terrible, you can go visit a cemetery by yourself and put flowers on a headstone. But make sure to wipe away those tears before you leave!
On June 14th, 2003, my dad passed away from cancer, and I have dreaded that date every year since then. Coincidentally, it usually falls on the same weekend as father’s day so I’m berated by constant reminders that I don’t have a dad for a full month leading up to it. Radio ads and TV commercials ask me over and over what I’m going to get my dad and when the day finally comes, everyone else spends the day with their fathers while I spend the day alone, trying not to count how many years it’s been. June is also the month of my dad’s birthday, so there’s no escape from the reminders. When it rains it pours and for me, it pours in June.
While in San Juan de Chamula, the first pueblo we visited, I asked my program director if people still took note of the anniversaries of their loved one’s deaths, like we do in the U.S. She seemed confused and said, “No. Why would they? They do this instead!” I looked around at the market we were in. Every vendor had made towers of oranges on their tables and children ran everywhere playing with toy skeletons. Death was not a scary thing for them. The Day of the Dead is like Christmas: something to look forward to and be enjoyed. Yet this was the time that they thought about all their loved ones who had passed and how much they missed them. This was their June.
Suddenly it dawned on me that there were other ways to deal with death than my own and that mine certainly was not the best way. I realized that I could apply this lesson to everything in life from healthcare systems of different countries to the best way to make guacamole. We just have to examine our options and choose what’s right for us. I decided right then and there that I had chosen Día de los muertos and that I would never again dread June when I could look forward to this instead. An enormous relief spread over me as if the weight of my dad’s death that I had been carrying around for ten years had suddenly lifted.
That night I made an altar for my dad on the floor of the lobby in my hotel. I set out roses so the smell would draw his spirit back and put out a pan de muertos so he would have something to eat (these are common practices on the Day of the Dead, as it is believed that the spirits of the dead come back to our world on those few days). I poured him a glass of coke and clinked glasses before I drank mine. Then I lit a candle and sat there for a few minutes thinking about all the years of the rest of my life when I would do this instead of dreading June 14th. This day became my favorite study abroad experience and one of the most important days of my life.
I first learned about Día de los muertos when I was seven years old and my bilingual elementary school celebrated a toned-down version of what really happens. We made paper flowers and skeleton art and learned about altars. Half of my classmates were Mexicans so they went home and got to celebrate it for real. I, on the other hand, always wondered what pan de muertos tasted like and if someday I would ever have my own little sugar skull. For thirteen years, I built up Día de los muertos in my head and one of my greatest fears before experiencing it was that it wouldn’t be all I hoped it would be.
My enormously high hopes and expectations were blown out of the water. It was all I wanted and more. Never had I imagined how it would affect me and change the way I saw the world. Death is not something to be feared anymore. June will no longer be lonely and depressing; it will take me back to the cobblestone streets of Chiapas and all the colors, sounds, and smells of the celebration of life that is Day of the Dead. When someone asks me what I’m going to do for my dad on Father’s Day, I’ll smile and think of the altar I’m going to build for him come November 1st. Death is not the grim reaper gliding past a crow perched on a gravestone. Death is a celebration meant for the tops of mountains where the air fills with the smell of flowers and when people come together to remember. Día de los muertos is a time to be together and now that I’ve experienced it, I will never again be as alone.
Caitlyn Mendenhall is a student at University of Denver and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler on the Merida Universities Program in 2013.