Your Dead Will Find You

November, 2005

 

Your dead will find you on Day of the Dead no matter where you’re living. In fact, they’ll show up at your door November 1 at precisely 3:00 P.M., which nicely coincides with the dinner hour. They located you by the odors of food, wine and flowers with which your house was decorated; that’s why each family has a good meal and an altar with flowers and food set out.

          My friend Adriana told me that my departed, although buried in Boston, will find me in Oaxaca if I have an altar. The kicker comes on November 2 at midnight, when it’s time for the dead to return to their cemeteries, a bon voyage party with candles burning at both ends. But the dead return to their particular  burial places, so my departed will have to say goodbye at the door, and get home as best they can without me.

          Oaxaca has a firm tradition for Day of the Dead. The markets fill with yellow and orange mums, long pieces of cane for constructing the altars, fruit, nuts, special breads, and a lot of alcohol. It’s a two-day legal holiday.

          The sand carpets are laid out in various doorways, painted and decorated with special effects. Adriana told me that when there’s a death in the family, a professional sand painter will come to your house and put on your floor a carpet decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe or whichever saint was the favorite of the dead person. The dead are buried promptly in this warm climate, but the mourning period goes on until the ninth day when the sand carpet, neatly divided into four parts representing the four wounds of Christ, is carried away.

          Oaxaca is truly a jumble of ancient Mayan and Zapotec beliefs and customs, with Catholic modifications imposed by the church. However, the Oaxaqueños accommodated in the 1500s, they do it still today.

 

I must say I like the idea of seeing some dead folks I knew, or maybe didn’t know (my grandfathers? Never knew them) and only wish the Day of the Dead applied equally to others not related. For example, I´d like to meet Joe DiMaggio. What would I have to cook to get him to follow his nose to my house – pasta? My true list of culture heroes would also include Stephen Jay Gould, Robert Frost, and Mae West – can you imagine a woman less than five feet tall who weighed 140 pounds and was considered sexy? Well I guess I’m revealing my generational biases when it comes to famous dead. But how about Caesar? Wouldn’t you love to have the chance, with the failure of empires uppermost in many minds, to ask, “Shit man, whatever possessed you?”

 

Día de Muertos must be a difficult time for people with hay fever. The odor of flowers is reaching well beyond the cemeteries and shops, it’s everywhere. The dead hover everywhere also, as the painter Rodolfo Morales of Oaxaca, now himself defunct, painted them, serious looking, maybe you would say sad, keeping an eye on brides, dreamers, and unsmiling women. When Morales painted towns and cities he frequently showed the town floating, its houses and families supported by the dead.

 

We float on the pollen of Oaxaca’s flowers.