On the Day of the Dead, families and friends go to cemeteries to pray at the graves of the departed, often building ornate altars in their memory. Favorite food and drink as well as flowers and other mementos are laid out to encourage the souls of the dead to visit.
Mexico City – Been There

700,000 graves in the heart of Mexico City

Photo by Kenneth Garrett

Mexico City – Been There 700,000 graves in the heart of Mexico City

In Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park is the Panteón Civil de Dolores, the largest cemetery in Latin America and a self-contained city of the dead within the larger metropolis.

Brian Patrick Eha
Brian Patrick Eha Journalist

Established in 1875, it contains some 700,000 graves. It is so vast that its forking paths are marked by street signs, exactly as if it were a city in whom the living are foreigners; chilangos warn visitors that it is all too easy to get lost among the graves.

Christopher Wren, the British architect of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral among many other great buildings there, once proposed that burials should take place neither in churches nor in churchyards, but rather in walled cemeteries “decently planted with yew trees” on the outskirts of the city. These cemeteries encircling London would, in Wren’s conception, “bound the excessive growth of the city with a graceful border.” It may say something about the Mexican attitude toward death that here the deceased have not been banished to the outskirts but rather, in the Panteón de Dolores, have been taken into the city’s inmost heart.

These are my thoughts as I enter the cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Dusk is approaching. Heavy gray clouds all afternoon have blotted out the sky. “It looks like it’s about to dump buckets,” said a friend earlier. But the rain is staying away for now.

Trumpets are blaring somewhere nearby and fireworks are exploding. An old woman hands me a piece of pan de muerto, the sweet holiday bread whose round loaves are decorated with pieces of dough that look like bones. Around my neck are two saints: Saint Christopher, patron of travelers, and Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, an icon of Mexican folk religion. The noises gradually fade as I wander the byways of the burial ground, leaving the entrance far behind. The houses of the dead, many with doors and windows, glow in the blue dusk, their white stone remaining luminous even as darkness descends.

As twilight deepens, night birds begin calling to one another from the trees. I come upon a small campfire amid the crypts around which ten people are gathered. Some families, I have heard, will hold vigil all night in the graveyard. I want very much to take their photo but it does not seem right to disturb them. To participate in the Day of the Dead as a foreigner is to confront one’s own massive irrelevance; the holiday would go on just as it is without me. And so much the better.

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