Life and Death in Cancun
A trip to Mexico on the Day of the Dead helped writer Sharon Spence Lieb overcome her fear of death—so she can be prepared just in case the end of the world is actually coming.
Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) ceremony is one of the most beautiful and important events of the year.
Mexicans believe that death is part of a vital cycle in which people die in order to be reborn. Families celebrate the lives of their beloved dead with joy, music, food and storytelling.
Death is my least favorite subject. I lost my parents at a young age and never got over the pain. So, I gathered up my courage and went to Cancun, Mexico, to see what I might learn from this unique ceremony.
My first stop was Xcaret, a renowned cultural and wildlife ecological park. Xcaret is home to dolphins, jaguars, flamingos and toucans, and is famous for its colourful theatrical folklore performances. Every November, thousands of locals and tourists gather for the Day of the Dead ceremonies, during which people paint their faces black and white like comical skeletons, as if to say “Death, you do not scare us.” They wear colourful costumes, and sing and dance. Xcaret glows with flickering candles around altars adorned with photos of the deceased, alongside flowers and food. No one cries; they are exuberant over being alive and greeting their beloved deceased.
“We celebrate the dead because they’ve gone to a better world,” explains Paola Fuentes, public relations director for XPLOR Travel. “We believe they return to the Earth to be with us every November. Altars offer them their favourite foods and drinks, like tequila. We enjoy music and celebrate being in touch with our loved ones. The souls eat, drink, be with us, and then return to heaven.”
Someone asks me what I would like on my altar after I’m gone.
“I’d request spaghetti and grilled tuna—my favourite foods,” I joke. “Plus my favourite wine, Pine Grigio. Whatever you put on my altar, I’ll be happy. But please, only show photos from my younger, thinner days!” My attitude is improving, yes?
On another afternoon, we take a day tour to the sacred Mayan archaeological zone of Coba. Our guide Saul, from Alltournative Offtrack Adventures eco-tour company, helps us climb up a pyramid-shaped temple, Nohoch Muul.
“This temple was built by the Mayan people in the 9th century,” he says. “It’s the tallest in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and one of the most important Mayan treasures.”
After a challenging trek, we’re rewarded with beautiful jungle views. Saul isn’t afraid of falling, so I trudge along by his side.
Later that day, Saul and the Alltournative team drive us to Tres Reyes, a serene Mayan community. Families welcome us into their homes, to see their altars and hear stories of their deceased relatives. Special dishes are offered to us, such as stewed chicken, homemade tamales, boiled corn soup and sweet pumpkin desserts. There are prayers and songs, and everyone is happy to be together. Young women proudly show off their babies as the circle of life continues.
Walking through the village at dusk, we come to stone steps leading down into a cave. Hundreds of visitors have gathered here to join a ceremony being performed by a Mayan Shaman, who is siting at an altar covered with photos, flowers and candles. I’m drawn to this wise man. Can he help me with my fear of death?
“May I have your blessing?” I ask the Shaman, who smiles and nods yes. I crouch onto the jungle floor and bow my head. Like a tiny child, I give him my pain. As sweet smoky incense whorls around, the Shaman invokes prayers of the ancients.
I think of all the wild creatures that might be lurking in these jungles and caves—jaguars, snakes, spiders—and I am not afraid.
I remember everyone I have loved and lost. I have mourned them too deeply, too long. I have allowed Death to sit laughing on my shoulders. Is it possible my beloved family souls have visited me each year, and I was unaware of their presence? Can I now lighten up, and celebrate their lives and all the blessings they gave me, and abandon the sadness I’ve carried?
I listen to the Shaman’s holy incantations. My heart begins to heal. Soon enough, I too will be dead. But I feel certain that my family waits for me. We’ll be together again. And that is the best news I’ve received in this life.