Celebrating Life in Mexico
With Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos)
by Fabienne Marsh
September 15, 2022
When I visited San Miguel de Allende, I had no idea what was to become the location for a crucial part of my fourth novel, Juliette, Rising.
It all started with Dustin, a dear friend I’d met when volunteering to teach art in our children’s classrooms. Her father was an artist and she explained to me why she loved Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebrations in Mexico, specifically in San Miguel de Allende, where her father was fixing up a modest studio he’d purchased in the center of town.
You didn’t know me growing up. I was a bit of a “dark” child. I’m a Scorpio, for crying out loud! My birthday is 3 days after Halloween.
I don’t know why death has always fascinated me. Maybe because it’s so taboo in the US. If I had been born in Mexico death would have been part of my life and it probably wouldn’t have intrigued me so. When I was young, I listened to morbid music and read novels about death. Now that I’ve grown up, I enjoy morbid music and dark autumn days. It sounds crazy, but there’s nothing I like better than a dark cold day listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds or PJ Harvey or early American murder ballads like “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Pretty Polly”. I made myself a “Fall” playlist that I play in my car with all of that music on it. I’d be happy to make you a copy. I just don’t want to depress you.
As a child, I’d wandered through Père Lachaise in Eastern Paris and visited the graves of my heroes, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Modigliani and Marcel Marceau (Dustin would have visited Jim Morrisson). I’d been riveted by the opening scene in the graveyard of David Lean’s Great Expectations and haunted by a grainy black and white film with children burying dead animals to cope with war, without ever learning the film’s name.
The difference between Dustin’s childhood fascination with death and mine were her pivotal words Now that I’ve grown up…
I met her when I had grown up and experienced the death of loved ones first-hand and in rapid succession. Death became real, intimate and unbearably painful.
During that same period, Dustin was literally staring death in the face. By day, she worked for the coroner’s office. At night, she volunteered, on-call, to sit beside the bodies of souls who’d left this world, along with their loved ones who did not want to be alone.
Dustin was also right about death being ‘so taboo’ in the US.
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz describes the Mexican view of death as only he can:
The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it: it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face with impatience, disdain or irony.
When I felt it was time to offer the bereavement group in Juliette, Rising an opportunity to experience a different perspective on life and death, the suggestion emerged from the characters themselves (this happens a lot when I’m writing.).
The group leader is Brenda. She is here because her six-year-old was hit by a school bus as she watched from the curb. Ann is here because her son hit a tree in a snowboarding accident. Mike’s here because his daughter overdosed on painkillers. Jim’s here because his lover committed suicide. Samantha’s here because her husband was gunned down in Iraq, and Cheryl’s here because her husband died of kidney failure.
Then there’s Macy, the Goth librarian in the group. She’s inspired by Dustin, yet Dustin never would have assigned this academic reading list on death before the journey to San Miguel. I would have.
Day of the Dead Workshop
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative (Mason translation)
Green, Obayashi, Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions
Plato, Phaedo (Oxford)
Tolstoy, Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Penguin)
“First Law of Thermodynamics” in Thermodynamics for Dummies
Castaneda, Carlos, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
“Day of the Dead” Readings from UNESCO and National Geographic
Enter Brenda, the group leader, offering a gentle response to the reading list (and the perfect plot option for me, the author)—again, this happens a lot.
“The only suggestion I have,” Brenda said brightly, “is to include a tactile approach to all the academic reading. It might be very therapeutic.”
So that’s what my bereavers did. They turned their losses into tactile celebrations by working together on an altar.
Welcome to San Miguel de Allende for Día de los Muertos, excerpted from Juliette, Rising…
The church bells are ringing in San Miguel de Allende. Processions and altars celebrating the dead are everywhere in this colonial town of cobblestone streets, church spires, and stucco walls in shades of ochre, rust, and vermillion. The sage-blue peaks of Sierra de Guanajuato, serene in the distance, submit to the riotous colors of open-air markets below. Mounds of marigolds and buckets of gladiolus, baby’s breath, and blood-red coxcombs emblematic of Day of the Dead fill the flower stands flanked by dozens of vendors selling tropical fruits, herbs, and local offerings including epazote, achiote, prickly pear, and candied pumpkin. To our unaccustomed eyes, the candy figures, sugar skulls, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) are disturbing, but the collective force of their inoculating presence hastens our respect for a culture that ridicules death and praises life.
Above us, the entire village is a festive awning, strung with flags of pink, white, green, purple, orange, and aqua papel picado, or paper cut-outs. The scent of copal, a tree resin, sweetened with sage and grass, wafts from both the altars and a town square filled with families working on meticulous portraits of their loved ones, grain by grain, with seeds and colored sand.
Fabienne Marsh is the author of four novels and numerous works of non-fiction. Her film credits have appeared on dozens of documentary films and she has taught writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota. She has served as a writer-consultant for Nickelodeon, HBO, Turner Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting (WNET and WETA). Her lighter works of non-fiction include Dave’sWorld, with co-author Michael Cader about David Letterman, and the coffee-table book, Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years, for which Marsh interviewed Candice Bergen, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, and other cast members. You can learn more about her at her website.