It was two years ago that I made a conscious decision to try to conquer my fear of death by visiting the celebrations of Day of the Dead in Mexico. I was apprehensive as I entered the gates of the park which were decorated with the scent of Cempasúchil , immediately it felt like a transition to another world. I was engulfed by such thick clouds of overpowering incense, I was coughing and sputtering.
Enormous village bands played loudly and heartily, and authentic Mayan warriors sprinted through the crowd, refusing to stop for photos.
Walking along torch lined path-ways, I experienced feelings of sadness, sorrow, contrasted with frenzied energy emanating from the dramatic thundering of drums, and primal shouting from fierce looking warriors dancing.
For four days in Mexico, everything stops. The eco theme park, Xcaret, an hour south of Cancun, holds its Day of the Dead or Hanál Pixán festivities to honor the souls of the departed. From October 30 to November 2nd, the annual Life and Death Traditions Festival swings between reverence and joyfulness with parades, dancing, face painting, and numerous elaborate altars adorned with candles, food and toys . The Bridge of Paradise is a replica of a Mayan village, with 365 decorated tombs that symbolize the days of the year.
A number of theatres featured a variety of dances. The interpretative dances were quietly haunting, morbidly accented by dancers wearing skulls, along with elaborate torn lace costumes. They moved as if in a trance, and writhed in the ecstasy of death which left me squirming in my chair, heart pounding, the similarity to nightmares uncanny.
Traditional music played in another theatre, the musicians played drums, flutes and guitars joyfully and enthusiastically, an odd contrast to a stage featuring mournful square dancers who circled the stage, stepping briskly to bizarrely slow music, with several of the dancers mimicking pall bearers carrying a corpse.
The powerful emotions and sensations were all reminiscent of the journey of grief. Dancing, singing, celebrating, and mourning, a mad jumble of every emotional reaction associated with death.
Cemeteries in Mexico (the real ones and the replicas at Xcaret) are colorful and vibrant, which is no surprise. The people live as they depart . We visited a local cemetery in Tulum, where families gathered at the gravesides, some beautifully built with elaborate structures completely tiled in bright colours, others made modestly, with hand painted signs. All demonstrate the love put into each gesture. Part of the annual tradition is to clean up the gravesite of the deceased friend or family member, decorating it with lit candles and bright orange flowers – ‘Cempasúchil’, a flower we know as Marigold is used only at this time of year . No altar is complete without the gathering of wild Cempasúchil and the spreading of them everywhere from family altars, pathways, and graveyards. The Aztecs believed that the spicy smell could wake the souls of the dead to bring them back for the festival. The gravesites of the ‘small souls’ of the children are the most precious and heartbreaking, festooned with the favorite foods, toys, and photos of the little angels cherished in life and death.
Death takes a break
Did I conquer my fear of death? Not totally, but I certainly felt more comfortable with the transition from life to death, and wish that the culture I lived in made a conscious effort to mark the anniversary of the death of loved ones with a celebration of everything that was important to them in life.
Where to stay: Even the resort staff were in costume . There are numerous options in the Playa Del Carmen area. We stayed at the all-inclusive Catalonia Riviera Maya, a high end resort that offers superb guest services, several different restaurants to choose from, white sandy beach, swimming pools, entertainment, water sports, and luxurious on-site spa . For a little extra, bump it up and stay in the Privileged section. http://www.hotels-catalonia.com
Melody’s trip was sponsored by Riviera Maya Board of Tourism, http://www.rivieramaya