In this third instalment of my Mexico City travel blog I outline an experience of cemetery dressing, for the ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations.
Dressing the Cemetery for the dead.
Prior to the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival (Día de Muertos) here, there are numerous extravagant events and preparations taking place – artists are at full stretch. Through my contact Vlady I had the exclusive privilege to muck in with the final ‘Day of the Dead’ dressing of the national state cemetery – Museo Panteón San Fernando, where all the presidents are buried. The artists’ collective Ultima Hora, mentioned in my last blog, had won the commission to decorate this prestigious cemetery, and Vlady and I arrived two hours before the official launch event, to help them with the last minute dressing process. The cemetery is a small, fenced sanctuary with plaques and tombs, and the collective had made papier mache sculptures depicting skeletons involved in a bewildering range of activities.
There was an area of child skeletons playing games (and including skeletons of sheep, and a dog lifting its leg against a pillar). There is a strong focus here in Mexico on children during the celebrations, and the first day (1 November) is known as the day of children, when dead children are remembered and their spirits invited back to the home.
The other areas in the cemetery showed adult skeletons – cooking, grave digging, playing instruments, kneeling in front of a grave and so on. The flavour of the scenes was consistently ironic, and theatrical, giving the whole cemetery a slightly subversive atmosphere.
When Vlady and I arrived we were put to work dressing the many skulls and skeleton scenes with the two ‘flowers of the dead’ – one bright yellow, marigold kind of flower (‘sempasuchil’), and a deep red, heavy flower called ‘cocks’ comb’. The tradition is to lay out crosses on the ground in these vivid-coloured flowers, and then to use a pile of yellow petals to create a trail for the spirits of the dead to follow back to their homes. We also added candles and incense, the heady perfume of which is everywhere around the offerings and altars to the dead.
It was very exciting to be useful in the last hours of this project, and I was amused that some city dignitaries were invited in early to take their seats, and had to step over my feet to get past as I worked. I was glad they didn’t speak to me, as I felt like an English imposter! But even this small contribution to the dressing process gave me a huge sense of pride about the quality of the work – I wanted everyone to see each hidden corner of the cemetery with all the quirky, candle-lit and flower-strewn scenes.
The Ultima Hora collective are a very impressive team of young artists. They work smoothly and confidently, and their vision for the cemetery was inspired. The pictures in this post are my own, and there are more here. In my next entry I’ll fill you in on a rare experience on 31st October – when I visited the ritual of the ‘Santa Muerte’ marginal, cult religion (the festival of ‘saint death’).