Clockwise from top: Red-tiled roofs of Pátzcuaro with Lake Pátzcuaro in the background, skeleton figurines, various skull-shaped sweets, Tzintzuntzan Cemetery near Pátzcuaro
Between 80,000 and 100,000 tourists flock to Pátzcuaro every year to witness this celebration. The crowds can be crushing in some places, such as on nearby Janitzio island, where come 10 p.m. on November 1, it’s nearly impossible to walk through the cemetery. But for smart travelers who hire a guide -- or for those who speak Spanish -- spending Day of the Dead here can be an intimate, spiritual experience. Travelers can observe firsthand as families decorate graves, and they can talk to artisans about craft-making techniques that have been passed down for generations. Locals holding vigil in the cemetery often chat openly about their departed relatives, even as they’re clutching candles and singing hymns.
Watching the flames burn in the darkness and turn the orange cempasúchitl flowers into glowing orbs, one can’t help but confront his own mortality. It’s a subject that conjures up deep, private emotions, but among the Purépecha, Day of the Dead is a community-wide experience intended to be shared with everyone. Mary J. Andrade, a California author who has written eight books on Mexico’s Day of the Dead, spent her first holiday in the Pátzcuaro area in 1987 and said she was overwhelmed by the magic of the experience. At one tiny cemetery, a mother honoring her little boy who had passed away offered fruit and vegetables to nearly everyone in the crowd, including Andrade.
“In a way, they’re teaching us to take the time to get together with our own family and remember somebody who’s died,” Andrade says. “It’s a gift that Mexico offers to the world in its own way -- to say, ‘Stop for a moment, and remember that person who was very important in your life and who helped you become who you are.’ “
Day of the Dead’s roots lie in indigenous and Spanish religious traditions. Although anthropologists don’t entirely agree on its history and origin, it’s thought to have been influenced by the Roman Catholic celebrations All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, for which participants prepare food in memory of their loved ones, visit cemeteries, and attend mass to pray for the dead. Others say the holiday stems from Mesoamerican funerary rites and beliefs, the latter of which held that souls traveled to different planes of the universe depending on how they died.