Day of the Dead in Mexico

A stone carved book on top of a grave in Xochimilco cemetery during Día de Muertos in Oaxaca.

Visiting Xochimilco Cemetery in Oaxaca at Night during Dia de Muertos

Something that my wife Fiona and I have wanted to do for years and years was to visit Mexico during their Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, festival. Last year, in 2023, we had a gap in our calendars that we had left empty to actually visit Japan (still on our bucket list) but finding an affordable way to get there was proving tricky. It suddenly dawned on me that our dates coincided perfectly with the Mexican Día de Muertos festival at the start of November and, a few clicks later, the flights were booked and my Mum had agreed to look after our little dog Chip for a few weeks. We were all set.

If you have no idea what Day of the Dead is all about I would definitely suggest you watch the Disney film Coco. It explains everything. In fact, I really wished I had watched it before our trip because everything might have made more sense. I will write more than one post about our own Day of the Dead experiences but there is so much to explain and understand that watching guitar-playing Miguel visit the realm of the dead is going to be much more fun.

This post, along with a collection of photographs, is about our experience visiting the cemetery closest to our apartment in the Mexican town of Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaca). We were staying in the colourful barrio of Xochimilco (those Zapotecs really love their Xs) and, as it turned out, we didn’t need to pay to go on a cemetery tour bus with all the other tourists. Our ever-helpful AirBnB host Leonila told us that we would find everything we were looking for at Xochimilco cemetery, just around the corner. It was a bit of a gamble though. We had flown halfway around the world for this one single evening so what if we missed it? It wasn’t like we could go the next night. There was definitely a tense atmosphere as we ate our tacos before leaving the house.

Finding out from anyone in person, or online, about the schedule of Day of the Dead was a tricky business but we eventually figured out that the ‘big night’ was the 2nd November. Lots of people said that there were also things going on in the cemetery on the 1st, but when we visited that evening the place was deserted (at least, there were no living people there). So, at around 7pm, we walked through the narrow and ridiculously steep, streets of our barrio towards the red brick walls of Xochimilco cemetery. Navigating in the dark wasn’t a problem, all we had to do was follow the strong and musky smell of the burning copal resin.

So what is Day of the Dead all about?

To give a quick idea of what Day of the Dead is all about here is a rundown, based upon our own experiences and the stories told to us by the Mexican people we spoke to.

  • Day of the dead is all about coming together to celebrate the life of the people who have lived before us. Día de Muertos is a happy occasion, full of life and passion, and, I think, a great way to honour the dead.
  • Family members gather at the graveside on the evening of the 2nd November to remember their relatives who are no longer with them. It seemed common in Mexico to bury everyone from the same family in the same grave, simply adding a new metal cross in front of the previous one each time, so you can honour all of your family in just one place.
  • On one night each year (the 2nd November) the veil between the realms of the living and the dead is extra-thin, and the spirits of the deceased can pass through, if you help them to do so.
  • To draw the spirits of your ancestors back for the night you have to offer encouragement by providing some of the things they liked the most in life. Alcohol seemed to feature prominently, as did cigarettes, but all manner of foods and beverages would be placed carefully around the graves of the family members alongside photographs of those buried there. It got me thinking about how this all worked before photography was invented?..
  • Marigold flowers feature very heavily and they are not only placed all over the graves (sometimes completely covering the graves) they are also often laid in long trails. These Mexican marigolds, or cempasuchitl, once sacred to the Aztecs, are there because it is said that their scent and beautiful colours are good for creating a pathway for the spirits to follow and find their way to the realm of the living. The heavily scented smoke from the copal tree resin has the same purpose. I followed a trail of marigold flowers a few days later and it led me to an expensive artisan candle shop, but the price was offset by the gifting of two fresh pomegranates from the tree in their garden.
  • The next morning the town of Oaxaca resembled a war zone with dozens of loud explosions generated by the kind of fireworks that would be instantly outlawed here in the UK. This cacophony of bangs, we were told, was to scare back any spirits that felt like languishing in the realm of the living, enjoying a taco and a cigarette perhaps.

Visiting the cemetery on the night of Día de Muertos was an extraordinary experience. The atmosphere was  undoubtably jolly. Music was streaming out of old stereos and being played on guitars. Large family groups were gathered, picnicking and drinking the local mezcal. The vast majority of families there were really happy to explain to us what was happening, who was buried there and what they meant to them. They beckoned us over and insisted upon sharing their snacks and had little piles of plastic glasses ready to share their mezcal with whoever wanted some to keep the evening chill away. It was incredibly joyous and definitely in stark contrast to our own treatment of our deceased families.

I feel I should add that it was very clear that whilst many of the families actually encouraged me to photograph their vigils, it was obvious that others wanted to remember their loved ones in private. Everybody in my photographs was happy for their picture to be taken and, unlike the large photography tour groups that were prowling around with their long lenses as though it was all organised for them, I would like to hope that I was more respectful. For us it was a real honour to be able to witness such a private and personal event.

On a more technical note, visiting Xochimilco Cemetery in Oaxaca at Night during Dia de Muertos was a brilliant challenge photographically. It was, obviously, pitch black apart from some candle light and stark lighting from the streetlights outside the cemetery walls. Those same street lights did create wonderful shadowy contrast and made simple gravestones and flowers look textural and interesting. As for the past few years I have been exclusively using a Fujifilm X100 camera. I enjoy its simplicity and compact size and I rarely find myself hindered by the fixed lens. This is my second version and I have absolutely no plans to change.

A man sits next to a grave in a cemetery in Mexico on the night of the Day of the Dead festival in Oaxaca
S small bunch of orange marigold flowers on a gravestone in Oaxaca, Mexico
Two people arrange marigold flowers on the grave of one of their relatives.
Flowers rest along the top of a cross in Xochimilco cemetery, Mexico
View across Xochimilco cemetery at night on Day of the Dead
Offerings of food and drinks for Day of the Dead
lady wrapped in a shawl sits next to a gravestone in a cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico
Large cross covered in flowers in a cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico
A gravestone adorned with colourful marigold flowers
A single long stemmed marigold rests upon a stone carved book on a gravestone in Oaxaca, Mexico