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Just as we’re aware of the different lives through which we pass on the road, so we’ve become sensitised to the different attitudes to death we encounter. The recent histories of many of the countries we’ve visited – and the present-day lives of a few – are punctuated by civil war, genocide, torture and plain old disease. Death can seem very close at hand. Superimposed on our view of one particular ‘must-see’ active volcano in Nicaragua, for instance, are ghosts of the helicopters that used to drop dissidents, alive, into the steaming crater. And during our first fortnight in Mexico, we’ve passed dozens of memorials-cum-protests for the 43 missing students in Iguala. (The remains of one such protest are pictured above. The wall in the photograph is one side of a cathedral, apparently defaced with impunity.)

Similarly brutal images of death also haunt us from the distant past, via the many archaeological sites we’ve visited. In the absence of written records, modern man understands his predecessors to a large degree through their burial practices and temples. Perhaps to a fault: in museum after museum, we’ve been told that all art and design – ceramic, metallic, textile, stone – was made in the service of religion. However, when a beautiful object speaks to you across the centuries from a display case, what you want to feel is a common humanity.

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This isn’t often possible. It’s particularly hard, for instance, to relate to the many societies that practised human sacrifice. Seeing the ice-preserved bodies of 1,000-year-old children seeming to sleep brings the past within touching distance, but learning that they were sacrificed, lovingly, by their parents sends them back into ancient time. And while 21st-century football crowds may bay for blood, they don’t get it, as did the Mayan rulers 1,500 years earlier, from ceremonial games of keepy-uppy that ended with the losers being killed on the field of play.

 


 

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Against this pagan backdrop, and a decidedly colourful form of Catholicism in which Jesus seems sometimes to have gone AWOL, we’d envisaged Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as Hallowe’en in hyperdrive, dark and macabre and crackling with bad energy. In fact, at least in the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the annual event turned out to be a cross between a family party and a harvest festival (the end of October is when the maize crop comes in). San Cristóbal is immensely popular with travellers and tourists, but this was a weekend for the locals.

Even after speaking to various Mexicans, it was hard for us to figure out the precise schedule. However, we understand that on October 31, families prepare their homes for evening visits from their dead children on November 1 and their dead adults on November 2. Night and day, they visit their relatives at the cemetery. Some, we were told, bring their loved ones’ bones back home with them, a practice that reaches into the pre-Columbian past and still continues in some Andean communities. 

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The iconography we’d expected was present – garlands of cut-out skeletons, sugar skulls, pumpkins. (Don’t let the pumpkins confuse you. As a notice in one bar sternly admonished visitors, ‘This is not Hallowe’en.’) More noticeable, though, were the temporary altares – literally, ‘altars’ – that had been carefully built in businesses and homes around town. On beds of pine needles ringed with borders of orange carnations, locals had created tableaux with candles and ofrendas (offerings) for the visiting dead: seasonal breads and sweets, fruit, tamales, fizzy drinks – the exact custom varies from place to place, and younger people freestyle prettily. A best-altar competition was held on the town’s main square, village-show style. 

 


 

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Along with radio masts and rubbish dumps, neighbours on the peripheries, the sight of a cemetery generally marks our arrival in a town. We went to San Cristóbal’s late on Saturday morning, November 1. It was a city in miniature: walled, with a grid of paths linking the tombs and their gardens. At the arched gates, there was something of a festival atmosphere. Snacks and ice creams were sold alongside flowers, as a hearse carrying one of the day’s new arrivals trundled slowly past a line of beer tents. People were streaming in from all over the city, carrying flowers, hoes, musical instruments, picnic baskets, babies. Already, candles burned in most of the thousands of tombs, all of which seemed tended.

Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula after he observed a group of people taking tea in their family tomb in Highgate Cemetery, as was the fashion at the time. He fancied that in the gothic environs, he couldn’t tell the dead and the living apart.

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The Día de los Muertos is different. There’s no sense of the macabre, no forbidding plaster angels, no feeling of a door opening to a world beyond. Surprisingly, in a country where religion dominates and even defines many communities, there isn’t even much evidence of God. As families sat and chatted outside pastel-painted tombs that were oddly reminiscent of beach huts, the occasion reminded us of nothing so much as a day out at the seaside. There were few tears – just chat, the practical tasks of maintaining graves (in the photo above, note the man standing on the roof of the green tomb as he gives it a fresh coat of paint), and perhaps a couple of beers sunk to tunes struck up by mariachi musicians. The family-centred Latin American lifestyle seemed little flustered by death. 

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We’d expected to find the occasion ghoulish and maybe a little primitive. However, coming from a society that generally prefers to ignore unpleasantness, mortality included, we found this everyday approach to death unexpectedly appealing. So we tucked away our cameras, sat on the grass and talked for a while about the people we’ve lost. We don’t know if it was coincidental, but the next Mayan sacrifice site we visited was just archaeology.

from Chablé, Tabasco, Mexico