Flowers for the Dead

Take a Lake Pátzcuaro candlelit boat procession to an island cemetery celebration of the dead.

Looking at your reflection in the mirror of western Mexico’s Lake Pátzcuaro can have an eerie effect on one particular night of the year, when candles and spirits of the dead surround you.

While most cities and villages in Mexico celebrate El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the unique candlelit boat procession to the island of Janítzio slows the pace between the worlds of the living and dead. There’s no jarring travel—no speedy taxi ride through brightly lit streets, or brisk walk past cafés and discos. The idea of crossing water to reach the otherworld is familiar to many ancient cultures. After piling into a small launch with several Mexican families in the lakeside town of Pátzcuaro and noticing the hush that blankets the somber group as the island approaches, this voyage takes on a mythic air. They take the journey to commune with the dead in a way little changed for centuries.

Some say the Day of the Dead has its origins in ancient Aztec feasts honoring the deceased. After death, warriors and innocents became hummingbirds and butterflies. Others were sent to a land of eternal spring. Everyone else went to Mictlán, the land of the dead, ruled by the god Mictlantecuhtli. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, these feast days evolved as a combination of Aztec tradition and the Catholic days of All Souls and All Saints. Celebrated throughout Mexico, El Día de los Muertos is the country’s biggest holiday. Death is regarded as a part of life, not as an end to be feared, and the annual reunion with the dead is observed with both respectful memorials in cemeteries and playful tributes of music and dance.

Festival Atmosphere

On the afternoon of Nov. 1 in Pátzcuaro, I had marveled at mountains of sun-gold and lipstick-magenta flowers, and the women who walked away from the market with human-sized stacks of blooms strapped to their backs. Pyramids of sparkling sugar skulls with sequined eyes and bright frosting smiles glittered on tables under the shady arcades that bordered the Plaza Principal. In the center of the plaza, chatty vendors sold clay skeletons depicted as musicians, policemen, cowboys and brides. Heavy garlands of cempasúchil (yellow marigolds) dripped from hotel balconies. Music blared from folk dance exhibitions in the local auditorium, while cars and trucks drove in endless circles around the plaza, searching for parking.

In an attempt to beat the crowds to Janítzio, I bought a ticket for the boat ride to the island well before dinner. The pier in Pátzcuaro was a festival all to itself, with musicians, dancers and children hawking everything from toys to paper cones full of fried fish. Early or not, I didn’t escape the crowds. My boat was packed with people. As we motored closer to Janítzio, the colossal statue commemorating Mexican independence leader José Morelos glowed in the fading light and seemed to crown the island like a Christmas angel tree-topper.

Flowers for the Dead

A crackling voice addressed me from behind a monstrous cardboard skeleton hung from an arch at the end of the dock.

“Have you come to walk with the dead?”

The compact woman looked up at me, eyes squinting toward the sunset. Her rough hands gripped baskets of fruit, sugary bread and steaming hot tamales. A giant’s armload of marigolds was tied with white string onto her back.

Speechless, I nodded in response. She smiled a grandmotherly smile, closed lips stretched over her teeth, her entire face twinkling. Suddenly, her right hand shot up into the air, pulled a flower from the tangled mass on her back, and stuck it under my nose.

“Then you should take this with you. The dead love flowers.”

Before I could thank her, she turned and disappeared into the crowd that streamed through the hilly labyrinth of streets on Janítzio. With no signs that I could see, I found myself paying closer attention to detail on the buildings; they served as the breadcrumbs I used to orient myself. My mindfulness turned into good fortune. Walking slowly, I took time to peek down narrow paths and peer into doorways, discovering treasures that I would have otherwise missed. Next to the candlelit altar at the end of a well-hidden hallway were stacks of shoes, perhaps awaiting the beloved dead to come dancing.

Colorful Transformation

Eventually, most of the streets on the island lead to the cemetery. A small dirt plot next to the island’s church, it’s nothing spectacular in the daylight. But in the hours before midnight, small areas of color appeared slowly, like someone painting by numbers. First an altar, next some candles, then food and finally flowers. Trails of fresh marigold petals led from the cemetery to local houses in order to help the dead find their way home. Instead of watching the scene slowly assemble itself, I chose to do some more exploring and hiked up the hill to watch a long line of lights approach the island. The boats, full of tourists, were still coming.

“Look how the lake mirrors the stars,” whispered the woman standing next to me.

I stared at the stars in the lake—the wake of the boats blurring them into glimmering waves.

“It’s a gift from the dead,” she continued. “They try to make things beautiful for us tonight.”

Just before midnight, when the air became charged with expectation, I found my way back to the cemetery. It was glowing with candlelight and pulsing with energy. More families had come to set up their altars. More tourists had come to watch them. I was embarrassed to be counted among the tourists. Loud groups of young men stood at the entrance with six-packs of beer. Others roamed the cemetery with their cameras and without asking, took photos of a family at their altar, the flash burning into their eyes. Still others tromped through on their own path, walking straight over tombstones, oblivious. But the altar-sitters continued their activities undisturbed. Either they ignored the distraction or they considered it a festive soundtrack.

Early Morning Stillness

The church bells rang at midnight, stunning everyone into a magical silence. A handful of the tourists faded away and walked down the hill toward the boats to go back to Pátzcuaro. Over the next hour, half the cemetery emptied of onlookers. In the time it took for the graveyard to become quiet, I realized I had been harsh in my judgment. I remembered the balance in the celebration: respect and teasing, triumph and familiarity, life and death. Merriment holds the fear of death at bay. The holiday is a reminder to live it up while we can, and respect those who have gone before us.

Still, I preferred the peace that settled over the cemetery in the early morning hours. Clusters of people sang songs, ate and drank, and played games. Women sat by the graves. Men kept watch, drank and talked with neighbors. A dozen children slept next to their mothers. Other people sat quietly by themselves, in contemplation at the grave of a family member. I tiptoed through the chilly churchyard, trying not to disturb anyone, and wished myself invisible.

At the edge of the cemetery, I saw a familiar face. The woman I’d met at the dock sat among six tall candles, their flickering light causing shadows to dance around her. A dark scarf veiled her hair. Her hands were tightly folded on her lap. Baskets of food were arranged before her, her gaze fixed on them, as if she was waiting to see what was most favored by her dead relative. The tangle of flowers she had carried on her back surrounded the baskets and candles. At that moment, I realized she had placed her offerings on one of the tombstones.

I walked toward her, bent down, and placed my flower on the tombstone. She looked up, and her eyes sparkled in the candlelight. Her hand reached out and covered mine, and then she gave my hand two quick pats.

“This flower is his favorite. My brother cries with happiness.”

Destinations: Pátzcuaro, Mexico

Themes: Experiential Travel

Activities: Sightseeing, Boating

User Comments

flowers for the Dead this must be the Mexico to which we Northern folks don't seem familiar. We would love to go to this area.

Wow What a cool story. I had no idea...