Uncovering Rich Traditions of Mexico's Day of the Dead: One Traveler's Experience in Oaxaca

My friend, Catharine DeLong, a certified Contemplative Musician and Music-Thanatologist, uses her harp to bring comfort to hospice patients. During the 2019 Day of the Dead celebrations, she had the opportunity to travel to Oaxaca and immerse herself in the festivities. Here, she shares some of her firsthand insights and experiences from her trip.

What made you decide to go to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead?

I wanted to be part of the Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca in order to experience a culture that keeps the memory of their deceased loved ones alive.

Tell us about your experience while visiting Oaxaca

I was traveling with an anthropologist and a curandero (Mesoamerican shaman) so our exploration included visits to ancient sacred sites, such as the ancient city of Mictla, where the Zapotec people went to communicate with their dead. We participated in rituals and ceremonies such as the Temezcal (sweat lodge). We learned about the Aztec, Maya and Zapotec calendars, and participated in the making of traditional foods such as mole and tamales. And we shopped in the local markets.

What were some of your favorite sights and sounds you experienced while away?

Witnessing the decorating of graves as a communal experience for family and friends was meaningful to me. When the work is completed, loved-ones hang out around the gravesite. It is like a cemetery version of tail-gating. The sense of the sacred is palpable in the fragrance of the marigolds, the illumination of candles burning at dusk, and the tones of loved ones visiting and playing music.

What traditions of The Day of the Dead would you like to see brought into our modern day culture?

The building of an altar in our hotel lobby was a profound experience. We placed photos and names of our loved ones, and offerings of their favorite foods, and also an abundance of flowers, candles, etc on the altar. Marigolds light the way for the spirits of the deceased to find their way to the ofrende, where their photo is displayed. (See the film Coco).

Anything else you want to add about your trip or experience?

I didn't want to come home. There was a purity of the land and of the people that drew me in. The fragrance of the marigold will forever recall sweet memories of Oaxaca. Its symbolism as the sun that rises and sets every day is a potent reminder of the circular nature of life.

Special thanks to Catharine for her time, answering my questions and for the use of her personal photos for this post and on Instagram.

Catharine is a certified Contemplative Musician and Music-Thanatologist in New York City. She plays the harp and sings to Visiting Nurse Service of New York hospice patients; to individuals receiving palliative care at Bellevue Hospital and to others who are approaching the end of life. As a freelance harpist, she also provides contemplative music for wakes, memorial services and more. She is also a recent graduate from One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.

To learn more about Catharine please visit her website. Photo by Valeria Almaraz on Unsplash.