Oaxaca mural

Oaxaca mural

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Day of the Dead Is Over, But...

"Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) was November 2nd, but even though that holiday has come and gone, I thought that it would be an appropriate time of year to pay a visit to Mexico City's largest cemetery, "El Panteón Civil de Dolores".

I had two reasons for visiting this place.  First of all, I wanted to see the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons, an area of the cemetery which contains the tombs of over 100 famous Mexicans.  Second, I hoped that I would still see some of the flower offerings which families place on the graves of departed loved ones on the Day of the Dead.

The cemetery is located adjacent to the newer sections of Chapultepec Park.  Getting to there was a bit of a trek.  I walked to the nearest subway station, after two stops transferred to another line, then after got off at the next station, and walked quite a way down busy Constituyentes Avenue.  There was no way that one could miss the entrance to the cemetery.  It was still brightly decorated for the Day of the Dead.

The cemetery was established in the nineteenth century by an English immigrant who owned a large ranch on what was then the outskirts of Mexico City.  Since he and his family were Anglicans, they were ineligible to be buried in the existing Catholic cemeteries.  He set aside a large portion of his ranch to be a non-religious cemetery where anyone could be buried.  Today it is the largest cemetery in all of Latin America.  It is estimated that 700,000 people are buried here.  No room remains for any more burials.

A short walk from the main gate led to another decorated gate.  Here you enter into the area known as the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons.

In the center of this section is a large, sunken, circular plaza.  For the Day of the Dead the pavement is covered with elaborated designs.  I was not allowed to descend to get a closer look, so I do not know if the designs were created from flower petals, colored sawdust, colored sand, or a combination of all three.  All three materials are typically used in the decoration of streets for special occasions.

Arranged around that sunken plaza are two concentric circles of graves.  Burial in this section is reserved for people who have made a significant contribution to Mexico's history or culture. 

There is a wide variety in the styles of the grave monuments.  Those from the nineteenth century generally reflect the elaborate, romanticized style that was typical of funerary sculpture in that era.

This especially elaborate group of sculptures marks the grave of Lerdo de Tejado, who became President of Mexico upon the death of Benito Juárez.

The names of the "Illustrious Persons" buried in this section would probably mean nothing to most "gringos".  However they represent a "Who's Who" of famous generals, war heroes, artists, poets, novelists, composers and others.  Interestingly, men of politics seem to be few and far between.  There are only three former Presidents buried here.

I recognized most of the names on the gravestones... either from college courses on Mexican history and Mexican literature, from my frequent travels here, or just from city streets that have been named after them.

For those interested in art, the "Big Three" of twentieth century mural painting are all buried here.

This is the resting place of Diego Rivera.

The monument of José Clemente Orozco is a simple slab of rough volcanic stone.


The grave of David Alfaro Siqueiros features this sculpture which could have come from one of his three-dimensional murals.

This area used to be called the Rotunda of Illustrious Men... but the name was changed to "Illustrious People" because there are a number of famous women buried here.

Virginia Fábregas was a stage actress who has been called "the Sarah Bernhardt of Mexico".

Here's a name that film buffs might recognize... Dolores del Río.  This Mexican film actress was the first Latina woman to gain success in Hollywood.

I then wandered a bit through a small portion of this vast city of the dead, looking at the graves of the not-so-famous.  As you can see the cemetery is very crowded.  The graves are marked by everything from simple headstones to small chapel-like structures where an entire family might be buried together.

Many of the graves were strewn with flower offerings and other decorations that had been placed by family members a few nights ago for the Day of the Dead.  The favored flower for the holiday is the marigold.

For over a century, the "Catrina", an elegantly dressed skeleton, has been a motif in Mexican art, handicrafts, and the celebration of the Day of the Dead.  It characterizes the unique way in which the Mexican people face the inevitable fate of death with a touch of humor.

Just as the United States has exported to Mexico Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees, so too is our celebration of Halloween beginning to leave its mark on Mexico's Day of the Dead.  Even though they are close together on the calendar, the two are distinct and separate holidays.  I found it distressing that even in the decoration of the graves, our Halloween is creeping in.  Some graves had "Happy Halloween" signs.  You can see that jack o' lantern decorations are strung above this grave.

Hopefully our Halloween will never supplant the traditions of Day of the Dead, traditions which date back to pre-Hispanic times.

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