Dia de Los Muertos

Scene at San Gregorio Cemetery near Mexico City

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.” 
— Malcolm Lowry

Anita seemed perplexed.

Lara, Emma and I were all standing in the middle of San Gregorio Cemetery with tears streaming down our cheeks. It was all so beautiful. So sad. So poignant.

We were surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexican families who had flocked to the cemetery on Nov. 1 to remember the dead. Mariachis played. Candles flickered. A glowing orange snowfall of marigold petals covered everything. Incense drifted through the air, kindling pungent memories of my altar boy days at St. Anselm Catholic church.

It had taken us three tedious hours to reach this graveyard on the southern edge of Mexico City. The traffic was insane. Everyone was out celebrating the dead. I wondered if we should just give up and turn back. I’m glad we didn’t.

I’d been playing hide and seek with the dead since we landed in Mexico City. Every time I saw a stunningly cool post card, I thought of my recently departed friend Barb Page. If only I could send her one more card, one more random reminder that I was thinking of her.

The frenzied subsonic celebrations of Aztec drummers and dancers near the Zocalo conjured memories of Phil Pollard, who I was shocked to learn had died suddenly while we were in Mexico. Phil was one of those defining personalities of our years in Knoxville, keeping the beat for Sara Schwabe’s Yankee Jass Band and numerous other musical endeavors, including his eclectic, electrifying Band of Humans.

“We’re all having a little funeral in our souls right now, too,” Knoxville’s Matt Morelock wrote on his Facebook page after Phil died. “He’d reject the mourning and admonish us to celebrate and get off the damned computer and do somethin’ freaky! I think it’s our duty now. I’m going skinny dipping in broad daylight.”

Yes. Exactly. Mexico City was my skinny dipping in broad daylight. The flamboyant colors. The persistent DayGlo presence of the deceased. No time for a funereal remembrance of things past. This was a rave.

The entire trip had somehow seemed fated. Lara and I discussed it jokingly over a few glasses of wine several months ago. We realized it had been a long time since we took a vacation. We should do something, anything, to get away.

Another trip to Jamaica? Not quite right.

“How about Mexico City?’ I asked. Our friend Anita and her daughter, Emma, had recently moved there, so we’d visit with an insider’s perspective. And Dia de los Muertos was coming. We’ve collected Latin American art for a long time, including a fair amount of works celebrating the Day of the Dead. But we’d never actually visited during the holiday itself.

The next morning, when the wine had worn off, the idea hadn’t. We cleared the dates with Anita, booked the trip and were on our way. Looking back, I realize it was inevitable. Irresistible.

Standing in San Gregorio Cemetery, watching Mexicans embrace death in the flickering light as something familiar and unavoidable, the tears came. Not mournful tears. Sweet tears spiced with the memory of lives lived fully.