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Entrance to the Mitla municipal cemetery. The message above is translated to say, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.

I have had death on my mind this last week. November 1 and 2 are the holidays in Mexico called Day of the Dead. It’s a big deal in Mexico, and especially in Oaxaca, the state where I live. The Atlantic magazine had a photo spread with Day of the Dead pictures, and two of them were from Oaxaca, one from a little town down the road named Tlacolula. It’s primarily a Catholic holiday (Mexico is 90% Catholic). It comes from a mixed belief of the Zapotecs and Mayans combined with some Catholic beliefs that the spirits of the dead come back for two days every year. Those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos, usually have a shrine in their house dedicated to the dearly departed, and also go to the cemetery and decorate the grave(s) of those family member(s) who have passed on. They usually spend the night at the cemetery eating pan de muertos (dead bread) and drinking. It is a big tourist attraction, where visitors from all over the world come and tour certain cemeteries during the midnight hours. My wife, Anita, was born in Mitla, just down the road from the home for needy children where we serve. Some consider Mitla the dead head capital of Oaxaca (and I don’t mean Grateful Dead). The municipal cemetery there is normally a hoppin’ place during Day of the Dead, but these last two years it has been closed down due to Covid concerns.

Normally the Mitla cemetery would be decorated with hundreds of marigolds in preparation for Day of the Dead this time of year.
Mitla cemetery closed because of a rise in Covid cases.

Another reason I have been thinking about death is that Anita’s uncle died at the end of October. He had dementia and had been ill for quite awhile when he died. He was Catholic. He lived in Mitla. When a Catholic dies in Mitla, it’s a big deal. The deceased is put in a casket and then put on display in one of the rooms of his or her house. Then family and friends come from miles around to comfort the family. My wife was helping the family prepare food. When family and friends show up you give them hot chocolate and bread. Then, about midnight, you start making the real meal, which everyone eats about one a.m. Finally they leave about two a.m. After the clean up, Anita fell into bed about three a.m. She arose early in the morning to do the whole thing over again. The priest shows up and does a mass for the dead, and everyone walks to the cemetery, but not before packing the casket with extra clothes and food and favorite things of the newly dead. A bottle of water was also put into the coffin. Anita asked what that was for. She was told he would probably get thirsty on his long journey (through purgatory?).

At the cemetery, only the immediate family was allowed to view the burial, due to covid concerns. In July we were at the same cemetery for the internment of Anita’s mom, and everyone was allowed in, but it seems the pandemic is experiencing an uptick and restrictions have reared their ugly head. The immediate family finally came out of the cemetery, but relatives and friends hung around for at least an hour drinking beer and mezcal and eating chips. Anita and I had to get back to the mission for a big birthday party and we left. I have no idea how long they all stayed.

Day of the Dead reminded me of my mothers death a couple of years ago, and my mother-in-laws death in July. I also thought of Anita’s other uncle who died a year ago. Some were Christians, some weren’t. I thank God for the hope that Christians have in the face of death: O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:55-57

Cross embedded on the wall of the Mitla cemetery.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies. Jesus – John 11:25

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