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VOL. 43 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 15, 2019

A better way of remembering the dearly departed

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It’s a notion you hear from time to time: With all the attractions available in this country, why go anywhere else?

It’s not without merit. Among the benefits of our voluntary exile up North, for example, was that it allowed us to explore the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes regions of New York, which hold rural and scenic charms Southerners might not associate with the state.

But some experiences come only outside the borders of the U.S., at least in their authentic version. Which is why we scheduled our recent trip to Mexico to coincide with a particularly Mexican tradition: Día de los Muertos.

Day of the Dead.

You might have heard of it and seen images related to the celebration: Towering costumed, skeletal figures or simply people with their faces painted to look like skulls.

In the two cities we visited, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, we saw makeup artists along sidewalks happily painting such skulls onto the faces of anyone young or old who wanted to adopt the look of the season.

I declined to participate; partly out of a journalistic desire to remain a detached onlooker, but largely based on the observation that on a face the age and weathering of mine, a painted skull looks a little too realistic.

One of my guiding credos: Never make yourself look worse than you have to.

We also happened across a couple of competitions that I can best describe as Miss Day of the Dead pageants: Lineups of strikingly painted and costumed women vying for what I assume was some sort of monetary reward and, possibly, local bragging rights.

Lineups mostly of women, I should say. One of the pageants appeared to have a couple of guys in unconvincing drag.

They clearly do not live by the same credo as me.

We learned that the female skull figures are called Katrinas (English spelling is apparently Catrina), the males Katrines. The association with Day of the Dead is relatively modern; the host of our walking tour on the topic credited the 20th-century artist Diego Rivera with popularizing the look.

Another feature of the celebration – which, contrary to the singular name, goes on for several days – is the construction of elaborate memorials to the departed. Some are in public places along streets; some are private, in homes. They can honor one or more people.

Or, not people. We saw a few dedicated to animals. One in particular, with a photo of a scruffy-looking little black and white kitty, caught my eye.

“Siempre en nuestro corazón,” read the inscription on the frame. “Always in our heart.”

Ain’t that the truth, cat owners?

The celebration doesn’t seem to interfere with regular Halloween trick-or-treating, based on what we saw, though that practice was different. Rather than going house to house, decked-out kids came to a central plaza where adults dropped candy into little plastic jack-o-lanterns the kids toted. There seemed to be no loss in enthusiasm.

In concept, Day of the Dead is similar to All Saints Day, or All Souls Day, celebrated in some religions.

But when’s the last time you saw offerings of food, drink or more set out for the spirits of the departed, which are believed to visit from the other side during the celebration?

We saw somber, jam-packed musical processions outside an older cemetery in San Miguel; a more boisterous (in some cases alcohol-infused) version at a newer one. There seems to be no wrong way to celebrate.

Most of us probably have some way of honoring the people who have left us. I’ve been known to put up a candle on the mantelpiece for one or another. But it’s a sporadic sort of thing, generally for special anniversaries.

Better, it seems, the Mexican way: Every year, a time of spirited remembrance for all. You can choose your own spirits. But tequila is appropriate.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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