All-Souls: Time for a party for the dear departed

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The Independent Online
This weekend in Mexico, families celebrate the Day of the Dead with an odd mixture of reverence and jollity. Richard Holledge joins the merry mourners.

He walks along the track, a great bundle of bright orange African marigolds over his shoulder. His wife follows, clutching a bucket of water. Behind, the children carelessly brandish splashy dahlias. It's a curious little family outing, characterised by a kind of determined quietness.

They are heading out of town to the cemetery to celebrate Mexico's most important religious ceremony, La Da del Muerte - the Day of the Dead. It is an odd mix of Hallowe'en, wild jamboree and serious mourning for the recently departed.

There seemed to be nothing particularly grief-stricken about any of the families who visited the cemetery in Muitles, a dusty, chaotic suburb to the north of Mexico City. They went about their business of arranging flowers in tins and draping them on the corrugated plastic covers of the graves. The petals from the marigolds are shredded to make into poignant little crosses on the earth in front of the more permanent crosses - often in wood, tied with yarn - that are scattered untidily over the hillside. After a year the dead relative gets a second cross, as if in confirmation that they have gone for ever.

Inside the cemetery everything is conducted with appropriate gravity, with none of the expected great explosions of weeping and Latin emotion that you might expect. On the way to the graves, it is a slightly lighter story. The mourning relatives may have stopped to chat at other mourners at one of the many stalls that line the approach to the cemetery; they may have bought tortillas, munched at little fish, been tempted by alarmingly green sausages hanging from make-shift awnings. It is a bit like the annual general meeting of a village WI.

In the days before this weekend's celebrations the country had been a whole lot noisier. The mariachi bands fiddle, strum and blast with unparalleled energy. The shops are crammed with toy skeletons and devilish masks. On the way back from the city centre our car was "ambushed" by excitable youths. A skeleton hung from a makeshift gallows, a rope stretched across the road. Wearing masks and clutching bottles of Dos Equis, they demanded "ransom" money before allowing us to pass.

Nowhere celebrates with greater passion and greater tourist interest than the colonial city of Patzcuaro, on the edge of the second highest lake in the Americas. Everything about the place is redolent with that strange mix of high church and low paganism that characterises so much of the land overrun by the Spaniards and secured by the priests.

For example, it is hundreds of miles from the high plains around Patscuaro to the heat of the Yucatan peninsula and the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. On the walls of the court where they staged the ball game - a sort of ancient basketball, possibly using a skull instead of a ball - a carving shows the captain of the defeated team receiving his just deserts. He has been spectacularly beheaded, his neck spouting great plumes of blood. But is he the loser? One theory has him the winner: the reward for his team's victory a speedy dispatch to the gods.

It is this curious mix of pre-Hispanic attachment to death and the importance of sacrifice that may underlie the modern Indians' atavistic approach to religion and to the dead.

That doesn't altogether explain the red outline of lipstick clinging to a casket containing a recumbent Christ in the Basilica which dominates the city, nor, indeed, a woman praying, clutching a can of Coke in one hand, but perhaps it does something to explain the Mexicans' fascination for death, and a need to acknowledge it with this combination of ritual and superstition.

The museum is filled with grotesque animal masks and human heads with ghastly lolling tongues, sprouting horns, infernal scars. A room of ex votos adds to the sense of superstition. Painstakingly carved on strips of tin, they are representations to God to save a sick wife, help a husband who hurt himself at work, spare a man from hanging, cure a man injured in a train crash.

Come the big day, the city - and more particularly the island of Janitzio - becomes a centre for mourning on a grand scale. Indians from miles around crowd on to boats - they used to be pretty affairs with great butterfly- style nets - and converge on the island with a single candle burning in the bow. The locals ignore the flashing bulbs of the tourists to hold vigils over the dead, chanting gently through the night.

If they stay relatively restrained at the sight of the tourists while the sanctities take place, this quickly changes with daylight. The boat trips from the mainland to the island are cheered by serenading quartets of guitarists and reedy warblers. A hat is purposefully passed around before we step ashore. The island, with steep paths leading to a vast statue of the Independence fighter Morelos, is a fantastical gallimaufry of shops selling such gew-gaws as plastic virgins, mugs shaped like bosoms - very popular - combs with your name inscribed, shiny plates and plastic hearts.

The children come out to beg; their mothers try to sell egg-cup shaped little containers of plum jam. In fact, plum stones, as I later discovered.

The country becomes infused with a kind of orange fuzz as dropped marigold petals leave wispy tracks along streets and down country lanes.

To the north, in Creel, a lazy, one-horse town on the railway line which links Chihuahua with the coast, the flowers droop in the heat, and pictures of relatives and drawings of the Virgin are wrapped in cellophane as if trying to keep their memory alive a little longer.