Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca

Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca

Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca

Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca


Kristin Norget explores the practice and meanings of death rituals in poor urban neighborhoods on the outskirts of the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca. Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Oaxaca City, Norget provides vivid descriptions of the Day of the Dead and other popular religious practices. She analyzes how the rites and beliefs associated with death shape and reflect poor Oaxacans' values and social identity.

Norget also considers the intimate relationship that is perceived to exist between the living and the dead in Oaxacan popular culture. She argues that popular death rituals, which lie largely outside the sanctioned practices of the Catholic Church, establish and reinforce an ethical view of the world in which the dead remain with the living and in which the poor (as opposed to the privileged classes) do right by one another and their dead. For poor Oaxacans, these rituals affirm a set of social beliefs and practices, based on fairness, egalitarianism, and inclusiveness.


Mexican death is the mirror of Mexican life.… Our contempt of death is
not at odds with the cult we have made of it. Death is present in our fiestas,
our games, our loves and our thought… death revenges us against life;
strips it of all its vanities and pretensions and converts it into what it really
is: a few neat bones and a dreadful grimace … but all of this boastful famil
iarity does not rid us of the question we all ask: What is death?

— octavio paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

In the southern mexican city of oaxaca, a funeral cortège moves slowly through the city core, a pace that gives the heterogeneous muddle of onlookers plenty of opportunity to assess the parade of figures passing through the street. It is not hard to recognize many among the group of mourners as wealthy Oaxacans: women dressed in black clasping bunches of white roses and gladioli surround the shiny lozenge-shaped coffin borne in the back of a dark blue limousine; men in dark suits and ties follow solemnly; they carry enormous wreaths bearing the names of their donors, embossed in large letters on wide dark satin ribbons. a group of musicians accompany the mourners; their instruments wail a melancholic and hauntingly beautiful dirge.

In Oaxaca, the streets are still used for public events and processions of all kinds, religious and secular. But this particular occasion is unmistakably a funeral, and, although in some ways it is clearly a carefully crafted and ostentatious display for all to see, the meanings, emotions, and practices that lie behind such moments of public ceremony are less evident. Although death is an obvious and unavoidable universal phenomenon, the cultural meanings that attach to it, and to the rituals that attend it are not. Indeed, even within a given geographic or cultural space—a city such as Oaxaca—the way that death is treated, and its manifold meanings, may vary considerably, from one social group to another, and from neighborhood to neighborhood. How rituals of death are practiced often says a great deal about how a given community regards not only life but . . .

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