In the southwest, the dead are very much with us, as they reputedly are in southeastern cities like Savannah and New Orleans. Influence from south of the border brings the dead close to us, particularly at this time of year, when the Mexicans observe El Día de los Muertos, or The Day Of The Dead.
The dead are not scary here. They are remembered as loved ones who have moved on, and even in their skeletal form they are looked upon fondly. It can be a little startling to a northerner to see altars in shops and homes featuring little skeletons dressed in their best clothes, alongside incense and gifts and remembrances. But to many people here, the dead are still family and their graves are places to visit.
Between October 31 and November 2, Mexican families in southern Arizona will go to their relatives’ gravesites and honor them. They’ll sweep the site and decorate it with gifts and flowers. They’ll repaint the name of the deceased on the cross, and perhaps spend the entire day visiting. The dead are remembered well, and their final resting places are not neglected.
So it is not surprising that Tucson (along with some other western cities) has several cultural events around this time. The biggest is the All Souls Procession, a 20-year tradition that looks like a mashup of Mardi Gras and Halloween, with a touch of Burning Man thrown in. At first impression it is a parade, with a route starting in Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue district and winding through downtown Tucson past the historic Congress Hotel and Rialto Theater, for a mile and half.
But the All Souls Procession is more than a parade for many people. Those who walk in the route run the gamut. There are artistic displays, actors on stilts and unicycles, fantastic costumes, and even a “dead” array of marching bagpipers. There are also individuals waving photos of dear friends now gone and shouting out a description of their good character, and people waving posters of their dearly-departed cats. There are families pushing strollers, with even the children wearing skeletal face paint, and slackers slouching along with clove cigarettes in their street clothes.
Good wishes to the dead can be written on a form provided by the organizers, and burned in an altar at the end of the procession, but there is no formality at all to the proceedings. Whatever sort of remembrance or mourning you wish to do is generally accepted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other people.
When we arrived at the parade route along Congress Street we were reminded of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but then the differences began to appear. The streets are not littered with drunk celebrants. There’s no screams of “throw me something, Mister!” or people flashing their body parts for trinkets. All Souls is a subdued celebration, and a family event. Anyone can participate. Dozens of people walked the parade route pushing baby strollers. There are signs of respect for the dead, and respectful protest (“Iraqi war dead,” “Death of the Pima County Library,” “Men, Women, and Children Killed By AIDS”). And just when it starts to feel like a carnival, somebody walks by with a somber look carrying a photo of a friend mounted on posterboard, with a list of that person’s wonderful attributes.
In this culture, people die three deaths. The first death is when bodies cease to function, the second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground and disappears from sight, and the third death is when there is no one left alive to remember.
I think there’s something in that. It is habitual for some to forget the dead and never speak of them again. But when you forget someone, all the lessons and experiences that person brought to your life are just as easily forgotten. El Día de los Muertos reminds everyone, especially the children, that the dead are more than markers in a graveyard; they are the people who made us who we are. I can see why the Latin American culture respects them every year.