Cemetery tripping on Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City

It’s Day of the Dead and I’m weaving my way through the Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, first ducking under a stone cross and then leaping across a gravestone.

I can’t help but be  reminded of the scene in the movie “Entrapment” where Catherine Zeta-Jones slithers her way under a web of laser security beams to steal a prized art object.

Except I’m not wearing a cat suit and I’m fairly certain Zeta-Jones didn’t have a glass of aged mezcal in her hand.

Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán on Day of the Dead

Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City

But navigating Panteon Antiguo during Day of the Dead  is no easy matter. Located 5 kilometres outside Oaxaca City, it’s  wrapped around an abandoned 17th century chapel and, beginning each October 31st, is packed with truck-loads of  marigolds, vases of teetering gladiolas and thousands of flickering candles. Smoky copal incense fills the air.

My main concern, beyond falling into a dark hole,  is to avoid committing a transgression. I’m surrounded by hundreds of people  sitting vigil at  family gravesites. They have decorated altars– in three levels representing heaven, purgatory and hell– with special pan de muerto , candles, flowers, photos, cigarettes and other tribute to the deceased in order to welcome the spirits back to earth.   According to Zapotec tradition,  nothing on the altar can be touched until November 2nd unless you  want to anger the visiting spirits.  So the last thing I want to do is knock anything over.

“Oh my god, I almost fell on a group of mourners,”‘ whispers the woman behind me.

“Follow me, “ I say, pointing my flashlight  under an archway of marigolds. I can see a clear path between a pair of urns and decide to go for it.

Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán

Decorated grave in the Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán

Traditions at Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán

Finally, I reach safety in a secluded corner of the graveyard. Here, although many graves are decorated, a few — such as one for a woman named Soledad who passed away at age 24 — are just black stumps in the ground.

“Maybe her family is coming later,” suggests someone in our group.  Given  she passed away half a century ago it seems unlikely. We all look a bit glum at prospect of her grave being lonely on a night so rich with family tradition.

“Take some of these candles and place them on her grave, “ says Suzanne  Barbezat our guide who, along with her Mexico-born husband, is the owner of  Discover Oaxaca tours.  She has come prepared with a bag of candles, candies and a bottle of mescal – all customary offerings for Day of the Dead.

We light candle votives and place them on the gravestone, illuminating her name carved in the worn stone.  A family of mourners nearby waves in  encouragement. I say a silent prayer, our groups splits up and then moves through the cemetery, laying marigolds and lighting candles on empty gravestones and paying our respects as we go.

A tapete de arena (sand carpet) is customary for wakes in Oaxaca

Making a tapete de arena ( carpet of sand) is customary for wakes and on Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Later, passing a display of tapetes ( sand carpets) we visit Xoxocotlán’s new cemetery which features concrete pathways, raised crypts protected by decorative fencing and, at the entrance, a large stage featuring a full-scale production of Catrina, starring no less than Alejandra Robles, one of Oaxaca’s top performers. The Las Vegas style show is broadcast on a large overhead screen and simulcast throughout the graveyard. Although it’s much easier to navigate through the new cemetery, the vibe is more festival than contemplative.

As I walk through the new cemetery, I realize that much as I enjoy the polished atmosphere,  if I was a ghostly spirit returning to the world of the living on Day of the Dead, I’d probably choose the slightly dilapidated Panteon Antiguo (Old Cemetery) as my destination.

Travel Planner

Tours: There are several Day of the Dead tours available from Oaxaca City. Most depart at 8:00 pm and return around 11:30 pm and include transportation, pan de muerto, marigolds and mezcal. They begin on October 31 and continue nightly until Nov. 2nd. Check at the Tourist Information booth beside the Cathedral in the zocolo. You can make a reservation the same day.

Another option is to join a small group tour such as Discover Oaxaca where the smaller group size allows you to experience the gravesites in a more intimate way.   The large tour buses stick to a predetermined schedule so there is not much time to linger. Book in advance.

 Cost: Expect to pay 200-300 pesos per person to participate in a large group tour.  The cost begins at $35 USD per person on a small group tour. Minimum  number of participants is required.

Get more information on Oaxaca City’s Day of the Dead festivities in this post by Mexico Cassie  How to Celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City

Michele Peterson
Michele Peterson
Dividing her time between Toronto, Mexico and Guatemala (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is an award-winning writer, blogger, editor and publisher who specializes in travel, cuisine and luxury lifestyles.
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Showing 4 comments
  • esperanza

    Such a different but admirable way of treating the difficult subject of death. How lovely that Soledad had some company at her lonely grave

  • Lesley Peterson

    Gorgeous photos, Michele! Looks like Oaxaca City cemeteries are a great place to culture trip!

  • Wandering Carol

    I love your voice in this article. I felt as if I were really there. Don’t you wonder what happened to Soledad? Who she was? I’m glad you paid tribute.

  • Sand In My Suitcase

    So interesting that you got to experience Day of the Dead in Oaxaca… It’s a lovely tradition to eat and drink at the cemetery of your ancestors and loved ones who’ve passed away – to turn a sad occasion into a festive one where you pay tribute to the dead.

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