A Quiet Day of the Dead in Mitla

5 November 2016


I had a very special, quiet, enlightening Day of the Dead here in Oaxaca thanks to the Zapotec weaver, Arturo Hernández, who invited me to San Pablo Villa de Mitla.

The Zapotec peoples are a pre-hispanic group that built Monte Alban that have kept their language and beliefs.  Their idea of death is quiet different from ours; what I understand is that they believe one has two lives and they are not that different.  One has a life here then one dies and has a life on the other side, doing the same kind of things – eating, playing baseball and missing loved ones.  On this one day a year the departed come back to visit, to the joy of those left behind.

We arrived before noon and proceeded to the cemetery that was a hive of activity.  People going in were carrying flowers, huge bundles of marigolds, cockscombs and many other flowers and fruits.


The flowers are to lead the loved ones back to this world; the follow the scent and the glow of the marigolds.  Once back to the grave site they are treated to their favorite fruits which have been lovingly cut up ready to eat.


fullsizeoutput_60bThen the visitors, the dead ones, are lead back to their homes; they follow the incense, copal, or a path of marigold petals.  Most people leaving the cemetery were carrying smoking incense burners, either in their hands or in buckets to protect them.


The cemetery was a caldron of scents- flowers, fruits, marigold and copal incense.  But as noon approached the cemetery emptied, by noon the departed ones were back in their homes.  Their living loved ones were so happy they set off fireworks.  The empty cemetery was awash in flowers.




In the homes altars had been constructed for the departed.

We left and returned to Sr. Arturo’s home and were feed festive food; mezcal, beer, turkey in mole and freshly made tortillas.fullsizeoutput_60cSr. Arturo did not have an altar in his home, his mother who died 3 years ago would return to her house where his sister currently lives.  There was an altar in his sister’s home and he would visit it later in the afternoon taking an offering.  Typical offerings are favorite foods of the departed, chocolate.

We set out to see an altar and learn a bit of the oral tradition of the Zapotec culture of Mitla.  We went to the home of a local historian/cultural guardian and were issued into a room with this huge altar that takes up the entire width of the room.


The garlands are made of a small fresh fruit that is abundant now. There are bananas, apples, oranges and other local fruits and corn stalks in the corners.  Marigolds and a special bread, highly decorated, that they only make in Mitla.  Everything has been selected with care and respect for the local tradition.  On the left is a mat made of palm leaf for the beloved ladies to sit on and a bench on the left for the returning gentlemen, just like the places provided at parties.  The arrangement on the floor has a special spicy scented wild flower, collected from the mountains, called flower of the dead.


In the middle are some wild orchids also.  The fruits are: jicama, chayote, sugar cane, and a squash.  The large gourd to the right has peanuts that have been toasted with spices.  In front is a traditional incense burner ( you can see very similar ones at the Monte Alban ruins) with copal and a votive candle.  I wonder if the candles came with the catholic church.

We sat quietly , were served mezcal, then beer and pieces of the Bread for the Dead.


The decoration on the bread is elaborate, made with an icing like substance that is not very sweet.  As we sat around we were told tales from the oral tradition in the local Zapotec culture.

One was a sweet and romantic tale of Manuel and Manuela who had been together all their childhood and adult life.  The one of them passed over into the other realm and left the other behind.  The living one was sad and wanted to be with their beloved.   The happy ending was when the departed returned and they left together for the realm of the dead.

This is the raconteur and guardian of the Mitla Zapotec traditions.


The following morning the dead ones are offered traveling food, to last then until they return in a year and they all return to the cemetery and their realm by noon the next day.  The village was very quiet while the dead ones were visiting in their homes.


These rituals are unique to Mitla, here in the city of Oaxaca the altars were full of papel picado , sugar skulls and catrinas.  The city was in party mode. Halloween has mixed into the festivities.  Here are some altars from the city:







4 Responses to “A Quiet Day of the Dead in Mitla”

  1. Linda Sage Says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for this beautiful description and photos.


  2. Joe Williams Says:

    Hi, I loved this! I live in the city of Oaxaca but am planning to spend DOD outside of the city this year, I’d love to do something like this! Do you have contact details for the historian you mentioned?


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