Celebrating may not be the first thing that comes to mind when mourning a near and dear one, but it’s exactly what people all over Mexico do every 1st and 2nd of November – Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). In Mexico, the dead are considered to be as much part of the community as those alive, and therefore, to grieve over their “departure” would be an affront to the deceased. Rather, their lives are to be celebrated, and thus people gather at graveyards to eat, drink and be merry in the company of their dead.

Dia de los Muertos
Dia de los Muertos. Photo: Meghan MacRae

And what a celebration it is! Colorful, lively and cheerful, but with death ever present; from elaborate graveyard decorations to graveside vigils, to skeleton parades and skull shaped candy serving as a “sweet” reminder that death is actually never that far away. It is a reality that may seem so distant now that we are getting older than ever before. But perhaps it’s also the reason why we find it so much more difficult than our ancestors to accept death when it does arrive.

It’s like the tale of Death in Teheran; a servant gets the fright of his life when he bumps into Death. He begs his master to lend him his fastest horse and rushes off to Teheran. Soon after, the master also encounters Death. Why did you terrify the poor man, he asks. To which Death replies: I did not intend to scare him. I was just stunned to find him here when I am to meet him tonight in Teheran! We like to belief that we can keep death at bay if we run away from it, despite knowing better.

But demystifying death and looking it straight in the face allows us to start seeing beyond the void and sadness that the dead have left, and to rejoice in who they were and what they mean to us. At the Merry Cemetery in Romania it’s the beautiful crosses that make it a place to marvel and delight in the lives of those who were laid there to rest. For decades, a local artist has been carving out the stories of his townsmen on the crosses – each one a very personal, often cheeky epitaph that truly brings the person alive.

Merry Cemetery
Cross with epitaph of Manaila Ion Mahumesc at the Merry Cemetery. Photo and translation: Kasia Atkinson

“Here I rest. Manaila Ion Mahumesc is my name and I have been the boy of Nani. There are few people like me. I was a nice guy and handsome. But I have not been lucky because I died as a young guy and my body is now destroyed in the earth. Dear mother and wife, God should take care of you and my children, because I loved all of you very much. And I wait that we will meet again,” reads one. And another one: “Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much. To sit at a table in a bar. Next to someone else’s wife.”

On the northeastern coast of Japan stands a lonesome phone booth overlooking the ocean. It was put there by a man who wanted to create a peaceful spot where he could go for an occasional “chat” with his deceased cousin. Just like the cousin the line is dead, but this Wind phone has become a sanctuary for people grappling with grief. I like the idea of the Wind phone because it offers a very comforting metaphor; death, not as a full stop, but as a conversation continued offline. A conversation from which we can draw courage and hope when grief just seems so overwhelming.

Photo at top: Dia de los Muertos by sf.funcheap.com