What the Day of the Dead can teach us about life

We drive through the gate marked Guadalupe Cemetery, emerge from the car and blink back the midday Arizona sun. Surrounded by houses on all sides, we worried we were lost as we snaked through the maze of suburban streets. Just when we had nearly given up, there it was—a walled-in plot of dirt and rustic crosses hidden at the housing development’s core.

The little cemetery is open to the public, but my husband and I are careful in our approach. Sacred to the Yaqui people, the place is clearly special, but the few people here do not seem to notice us or care. A family eats under a simple shelter. Trash bins are stuffed with empty cartons and cake boxes. Burned-out tea lights arranged into crosses ornament most of the graves. There is the sense that a grand party has been had, and we are stragglers refusing to let the festivities fade.

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This is partly correct. It is the day after the Day of the Dead. Just yesterday, the people of Guadalupe arrived carrying baskets of food in pick-up trucks loaded with cases of votive candles and potted plants. They sang hymns and performed sacred dances as they repaired and decorated their ancestors’ graves. From morning until night the cemetery was filled with the sounds of music, laughter and prayer.

There is the sense that a grand party has been had, and we are stragglers refusing to let the festivities fade.

A few scraggly ironwoods and prickly pears provide dabs of green in the dusty landscape, but most color comes from crosses that have been whitewashed and ornamented with paper flowers. Some bear photographs, images of the saints and offerings of water and the favorite foods of deceased loved ones. One gravesite includes a serving of fried chicken complete with a biscuit and an open can of beer. Even the simplest gravesites are marked with glitter and confetti. Streamers and balloons hang from mesquite trees. It is like a child’s birthday party, like an especially festive wedding, as if a massive piñata has cracked open and covered the five-acre cemetery near Tempe with sequins and flowers.

Grave markers at the Guadalupe Cemetery near Tempe, Ariz. (Credit: Sonja Livingston)
Grave markers at the Guadalupe Cemetery near Tempe, Ariz. (Credit: Sonja Livingston)

“We don’t have to stay long,” I say. My husband does not like cemeteries as much as I do. In my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., I regularly pass the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass as part of my walks through Mount Hope. The Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va., is home to presidents and heroes, but I stick to its southern perimeter with a view of the James River and an emerald embankment of kudzu plants where the trains cut through. When I lived in Memphis, strolling among the southern magnolias while reading headstones at Elmwood Cemetery helped to ground me in my new city.

Cemeteries tell stories. Of abolitionists and suffragists. Of Confederate spies and yellow fever epidemics. Of tragedy, opportunity and lost love. Guadalupe Cemetery is no exception.

Cemeteries tell stories. Of abolitionists and suffragists. Of Confederate spies and yellow fever epidemics. Of tragedy, opportunity and lost love. Guadalupe Cemetery is no exception.

When the first Yaqui people began to arrive here from Mexico in 1883, they were battered and nearly broken. Thousands of the indigenous people were killed trying to defend their homeland, and thousands more were sold into slavery and lost to the grueling conditions of harvesting sugar cane and tobacco. Some fled to the United States and settled in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

One band of Yaqui traveled to the desert near Phoenix, where they worked on farms and canals in the Salt River Valley. They named their settlement Guadalupe as a testament to their faith and devotion to Our Lady. When the photographer Dane Coolidge visited in 1909, he found an adobe church and houses made of mesquite poles and cactus ribs. Five years later, the Yaqui were moved from their settlement onto a stretch of nearby desert. Even as they gathered up their families and once again made a home of the most inhospitable terrain, the graves of those who had perished in the early years were marked with flowers and crosses and remained in their original settlement, the stretch of earth on which I now stand.

‘Muertos y Marigolds’

Despite my fondness for cemeteries, I am not always comfortable with death. I lost my brother last spring after he struggled for years with illness and addiction. Johnny’s life had always been plagued by a certain amount of hardship and sadness. I wrestled with how to handle this in life, and his death struck me with its finality: My relationship with Johnny was over. Even though “life had not ended,” according to Catholic funeral liturgy, “only changed,” I thought of my brother now in the past tense and with regret. He deserved so much better, I thought. I should have tried harder to love him.

Now, as I walk among the vibrant and frequently visited graves of the Yaqui cemetery, the line between the living and the dead seems to blur. I think back to last year. Four hundred miles northeast of Guadalupe Cemetery, a group of skeletons stood giggling beside me in Albuquerque. The girls wore black leggings ornamented with sparkling femurs and tibias and T-shirts featuring shimmery ribcages. Petals bloomed from their eye sockets and the points of their chins. Their hair was pulled into braids and trimmed with black ribbons. One girl lifted a candy skull to her mouth and bit down with a row of tiny teeth. In any other setting, the sight of a child dressed as a skeleton biting into a skull would be cause for concern, but it was the Muertos y Marigolds (The Dead and Marigolds) parade in Albuquerque’s South Valley, where skeletons outnumbered bare-faced revelers two to one.

Young girls dressed as skeletons at the ‘Muertos y Marigolds’ parade in Albuquerque, N.M. (Credit: Sonja Livingston)
Young girls dressed as skeletons at the ‘Muertos y Marigolds’ parade in Albuquerque, N.M. (Credit: Sonja Livingston) 

I have to admit I have never been a fan of skeletons, perhaps because they are such straightforward symbols of death. “Todos somos calaveras,” said José Guadalupe Posada, the Mexican artist famous for his extravagant calaveras. “We are all skeletons.” At Muertos y Marigolds, there was no avoiding this fact. Skeletons walked by in wide sombreros and delicate bridal veils. They passed by on skateboards and stilts, in sky-blue Chevy pickups, in lowriders and old VW vans. There were laughing skeletons and serious skeletons, singing skeletons and little skeletons who looked as if they could use a nap and a hug.

Oddly enough, none of the skeletons spooked me in Albuquerque. In fact, the main difference in how people approach the Day of the Dead and Halloween is that there is nothing morbid or unnatural about death in celebrations of the former. At the Muertos y Marigolds Parade, people took Posada’s proclamation to heart. Look at me, they seemed to say; I’m a constellation of beautiful bones. A woman dressed as the Virgen de Guadalupe seemed to float down Isleta Boulevard crowned with zinnias and haloed by a gilded nimbus. A stormtrooper marched past with a row of teeth painted onto his helmet. A trio of violinists in silver-studded bolero jackets flashed glittery cobwebs on their faces.

At the Muertos y Marigolds Parade, people took Posada’s proclamation to heart. Look at me, they seemed to say; I’m a constellation of beautiful bones.

But as much as the parade was celebratory, the holiday is rooted in solemnity and faith. Desiree Sánchez’s family regularly attends the Muertos y Marigolds parade but only after praying as a family beforehand, preparing an altar for the deceased and remembering them with photographs and stories. Even as they paint the children’s faces into calaveras for the parade, the dead are remembered and honored for All Souls Day. At 20, Ms. Sánchez has attended the parade since she was a child and sees it as an important expression of the family and faith.

Another woman I spoke to said Día de Los Muertos is fun but also sad. Alexis Estella Muñoz Rivera, 21, told me the day is all about connection to those who have gone before us as well as to Mexico, where she and so many families in the South Valley have roots. “It’s like everyone is coming together,” she said, “people you know and those you don’t.”

Not everyone attends the parade, of course. Some choose to keep their celebrations private. The ladies I speak with in the gift shop at San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town like to keep things low key. So does my Uber driver, who sets up an altar at home. “I have pictures of my grandparents and my brother,” Jaime smiles as he describes his ofrenda, a customary, three-tiered altar kept for ancestors. “My friends.” His offerings include traditional foods “and a glass of Scotch because that’s what my father liked best.” Whether they attend the parade or not, everyone I spoke to says the holiday is both celebratory and somber. This may be hard for outsiders like me to understand, a holiday that celebrates even as it mourns.

Día de Los Muertos originated thousands of years ago with Mexico’s native people, who viewed death as part of the natural continuum.

At the parade, organizers distributed marigolds to the crowd of thousands before the parade began. The gangly stems were woven into wreaths and draped around heads and necks. The florets were pulled from the stems and tucked behind ears. Known as cempasúchil in Náhuatl, or flor de muertos (flower of the dead) in Spanish, the marigold was sacred to the Aztecs. With their bright color and pungent scent, the flowers were said to act like little lanterns that guided the dead home.

Día de Los Muertos originated thousands of years ago with Mexico’s native people, who viewed death as part of the natural continuum. As Christina Zarate writes for the Smithsonian Latino Center, celebrating the deceased had been part of pre-European Mesoamerican cultures for centuries, a practice that indigenous people were able to preserve and combine with Catholic traditions to create what we now know as Día de los Muertos. Following the arrival of Spanish conquerors and missionaries in the New World, the church moved the summer holiday to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Pre-Columbian Catholicism and indigenous custom merged—though not without conflict—into a sacred tradition that welcomes the dead into our lives not simply in concept but in practice. Celebrated from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, Día de los Muertos bridges Halloween with the Catholic holy days of All Saints and All Souls; and while there is some overlap—especially with the feast of All Souls—the Day of the Dead is all and none of these things alone.

Desert Flowers

At the Guadalupe cemetery in Arizona, we come across a gravesite encircled by marigolds. Overhead, a canopy is festooned with streamers and papel picado, the festive Mexican banners featuring vibrant color and cut-out shapes. The Virgen de Guadalupe is painted onto the cross and surrounded by pink hearts. An ofrenda is dressed with red cloth and topped with a serape runner. An image of a woman smiling from an 8 inch by 10 inch frame is surrounded by candles featuring the saints. The altar is laden with offerings—crosses and glasses of water and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Clearly, this woman is well-loved, I think and wonder why I do not put my favorite picture of my brother into a frame. Johnny is young in the photograph, scrappy like most of the boys in our rough neighborhood, full of energy and life. But when I look at it, I feel only loss. I stare again into the photograph of the woman on the lavishly decorated grave and move on.

A handful of weathered crosses near the back wall are nearly swallowed by the low-hanging branches of a willow acacia. The largest tree in the cemetery, it was probably planted around the same time as the markers. Now, acacia branches and wooden crosses have begun to fall into each other until, at some near point in the future, the markers will be indistinguishable from the tree. But even here, the crosses are surrounded by tea lights and pebbles shaped into crosses.

It is impossible to find a lonely grave at Guadalupe. The dead are invited to join the living, are welcomed and regularly interacted with; and because of that, it seems to me, they respond in kind.

How different from our own cemeteries. Mount Hope Cemetery and Hollywood Cemetery are perhaps more elegant, and the monuments are certainly grander in materials and scale; but they are comparatively restrained and solitary affairs. It is impossible to find a lonely grave at Guadalupe. The dead are invited to join the living, are welcomed and regularly interacted with; and because of that, it seems to me, they respond in kind.

Jim and I circle back toward the entrance, still drowsy from lunch. The burritos at Rosita’s Place were massive, the chips and salsa endless. We had split a Negra Modelo beer before prying ourselves from the booth and driving east from Phoenix to the little cemetery. Now we head back to the car to continue our trip east. My husband spent the best years of his childhood in Tucson and wants to show me a hidden canyon and a spectacular swath of desert plants.

We follow Route 60 east as it bends south, the Superstition Mountains coming into view. Saguaros rise like an army of green men. Every so often, Jim spies a view and we pull over and explore. To me the desert is desolate and foreboding. Where Jim sees dramatic cliffs and cacti-covered ridges, I see the possibility of rattlesnakes and scorpions. But just as Jim withstood the cemetery for me, I follow him through the desert. That is how I notice a low shrub awash in flowers.

“Look at that,” I say, staring into the mass of purplish blossoms.

Darkness and light are but one, the psalmist tells us. Our lives are filled with both. Sugar and skulls. Flowers and dust. Love and loss. You cannot embrace one without allowing the other.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like the little cemetery in Guadalupe, signs of life spring up in the most unexpected places. In Albuquerque last year, I had hopped onto the median for a better view of the parade until my skin began to burn and I pushed back through the crowded sidewalk and settled under a cottonwood tree. I looked up and into the yellowing leaves. The trees were going gold all over the city, as if throwing their own autumnal parade. It was everywhere, summer’s overripe end and winter’s chilly approach. Beauty and death demanded equal time, it seemed, in the glorious season of transformation.

An Ofrenda for the Living

My brother’s life was incredibly hard. When he died, the largest part of my grief was that the possibility for healing seemed to have passed. But the heartfelt ofrendas in Guadalupe and the parade of beautiful skeletons of Albuquerque taught me otherwise. When I gathered with my sisters this past spring to remember Johnny, I was surprised to hear my voice addressing him directly to thank him for all he had given us in life and in death. In fact, his loss had brought us closer. We were more tender with each other, I noticed, more appreciative and patient. It was the first time I had spoken so openly to my brother in years.

A photo of the author’s late brother, Johnny, as a child (Credit: Sonja Livingston)
A photo of the author’s late brother, Johnny, as a child (Credit: Sonja Livingston)

Later, I placed the photo of him as a scrappy kid in a frame and surrounded it with other keepsakes: a tiny retablo of St. Anthony from Albuquerque, a piece of sea glass from Lake Ontario, a railroad spike that reminds me of the adventurous boy he once was. I set flowers beside the photograph and lit a candle. I did this for Johnny, as a sort of prayer of love and remembrance, but also as a prayer of thanksgiving because I had learned that he was still with me. Our relationship had not ended. The possibility for healing had not passed.

Darkness and light are but one, the psalmist tells us. Our lives are filled with both. Sugar and skulls. Flowers and dust. Love and loss. You cannot embrace one without allowing the other. This is what the Day of the Dead so powerfully illustrates. While families throughout Central America, Mexico and increasingly the United States visit cemeteries and build magnificent ofrendas for their deceased loved ones, Día de Los Muertos provides an offering to the living as well. Its traditions express a vital faith in human resurrection and communion with God and celebrate the continued possibility for hope, love and connection—even as the body returns to dust.

Alleluia, alleluia, the holiday jubilantly proclaims. Life has not ended, only changed.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Luciano Alvarez
1 month ago

Thank you for showing the picture of my Dad, my Mom, sisters & Grandmother at the Guadalupe Cemetery.

sonja livingston
1 month ago

Thank you for telling me, Luciano! Peace to your family. What a beautiful and sacred space you all are part of. --Sonja

Todd Witherell
1 month ago

This is a truly excellent essay. Ms. Livingston, you are a very talented writer with a gift for engaging narrative. Darkness and light are but one - a mystery indeed which Dia de Los Muertos profoundly expresses. I look forward to reading more of your work here in the future.

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