What a Day to be Alive, Said the Dead

Ever since my beloved old-fashioned hand written letters were replaced by E-Mail, Facebook & co. , conversations with friends have not only taken new dimensions in the distances traveled by our words but also in the topics being discussed. Hence, while walking the streets of Mexico City not too long ago, a question from Israel kept crossing my mind. What did I think of the fact that there were different religions in this world?

My culture shocks and awkward situations of the past years put aside, getting off the subject, I concluded that different cultures and their religions as well as their way of going about everyday life activities were something I would not like to miss. How amazing is it, after all, that I am able to walk the streets in a country across half the planet from my home, realizing that even across mountains and oceans millions of lives and daily routines take their course? Just like back home people were going about their own businesses and traffic formed a constant background noise, like static you couldn’t turn off. There were the same shops in place and the same books in the stores and yet the Starbucks I knew from every corner in Europe, sold a pastry here in Mexico City that first time German learners have a hard time describing. Pan de muerto, bread of the dead remains a linguistic mystery to me, like anything that is not in the Duden.

In the urgency of the moment, a Mexican friend learning German answered the very German question of What is your favorite bread?  in what was probably the most Mexican way possible by throwing in the word Totenbrot, bread of the dead. A quick dictionary lookup in what was not the Duden, proves the educated guess to be correct.

What would there be to write about if everyone did things the same way or if we had no new word creations to think about to describe our favorite type of bread? The world would be easier for sure but would it still be interesting?

Back in November, I took a car probably older than myself to observe a Mexican tradition as old as the Mayan civilization. Or maybe it were the Aztecs. Not even the internet knows for sure at this point. Where most foreign visitors expect a party-like event that sends shudders down their serious spines, I saw dedication and an honor to memory. Far away from the touristy places, where the Day of the Dead has become more of a piece of merchandise than tradition, I walked up and down the narrow rows of the Panteón 20 Noviembre in the colony of Tlalpan.

Each tombstone was a piece of art of its own. The colorful ensemble of flowers, fruits and sweets against the white tombstones glowing in the sunlight were the most captivating form of honoring the dead that I had ever seen.

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Nearly every tombstone on the cemetery was attended to. Children’s graves were the easiest to spot as they were the ones decorated with sweets. The Mexico I saw this particular morning was the same colorful one I knew from the first day I got there and yet, on the Day of the Dead, on this small cemetery far from the center and the tourist spots, there was a seriousness in the air that not even the brightest colors could overshadow. Not a single one of my smiles was returned that day. Even the mariachi music, an essential element of any Mexican get-together, was slow and peaceful. I could barely hear it from where I was standing.

People were sitting by the graves of their loved ones, keeping to themselves. Some were there in groups and kept adding more exotic flower arrangements to the white tombstones shining in the november sun. The brown watery eyes of an elderly gentleman followed the crowds of people carrying buckets of water and bouquets of flowers. He sat there all by himself, honoring the memory of his family before nobody else could.

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