San Juan Yaeé is a Zapotec community located in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca. Due to its location, the village found itself isolated from the lowlands. It developed special social rituals dedicated to their dead. Some of these rituals are used as social channels for reuniting the community with their ancestry.
Mexico has become well known for its commemorative and extended mourning rituals that recall and commemorate the dead. This photographic collection attempts to provide a range of mourning rituals and customs currently practiced by the Mexican Zapotec community of San Juan Yaeé, Oaxaca.
Various academics in Mexico have attributed death and the dead a national totem and in this photographic narrative I explore how a Zapotec community maintains social bonds with its dead, history and its culture. The community of San Juan Yaeé practice the Day of the Dead outside the glamorous masquerade that it has become famous for. In Mexico this commemorative ritual manifests yearly between the 31st October and the 2nd November, yet in San Juan Yaeé preparations start six months earlier.
On the 26th October 2003 I visited San Juan Yaeé and during my stay an elderly lady died on the 31st October. The following days became a fusion of the commemoration of the Day of the Dead with the spiritual remembrance and grief of a family and of a community.
Each year a different member in the community is chosen to make the candles,which will light the altar in the cemetery chapel.
“We call our dead to join us for this special event.”
A week before the Day of the Dead, the church bells are played at five in the morning to recall the souls of the dead to the village.
“There are two music bands in the village, they take turns to play at festivities, rituals and community events.”
Members of the village brass bands plays in the cemetery to recall and welcome the souls of the dead.
“At midnight on the 31st of October, fireworks are sent to the sky to announce the community about the procession of the candles to the chapel.”
The community gets together to dance in the cemetery chapel.
“Halloween is not part of our customs but it is entertaining and it is fun for children.”
On the night of the 1st of November a group of children dress up as women and dance from house to house asking for sweets. This custom was introduced into the village in the late 1990s and many children and families took part in 2003. The crosses behind the children where used to mark the boundaries of the village.
“Children are taught to dance, dress up and parade through the village asking for trick or treat.”
The village has its own version of Halloween. Some children dress up as devils or lost souls. This custom was introduced into the village by a young Zapotec, who worked and studied in Oaxaca City.
“My heart goes with her. Rest in peace, sister.”
The body is placed into the coffin by her older son. Her favourite items are placed into the coffin by the women. Then her brother says the last farewell to her.
“The souls of the dead are recalled to the village by the aromas of the orange blossom essence used in the bread mixture.”
The baker in a neighbouring village holds a customary shape bread of the dead. In Oaxaca this humanised shape has become the symbolical offering to the dead.
“These bells are played to call the village to mass, or on the Day of the Dead to recall the souls of the dead to the village.”
Village bells are housed in a special room outside the Parish of San Juan Bautista.
“Two special handmade candles are burned at any given time.”
Yearly, from the 31st Oct to the 2nd Nov the candles permanently light the village cemetery chapel altar. Only two candles are burned at any given time.
“O Lord, grant unto them eternal rest, to enlighten them in your perpetual light. Rest in peace through the mercy of God, the souls of the faithful departed. Amen.”
Members of the community attend the cemetery to pray for the souls of their dead.
“. . . and now we mourn the temporary absence of our loved one, we will meet again with you in heaven, to live together forever in your heart.”
The family visit the village carpenter to organise the coffin for their grandmother.
“How quickly life passes. One day it’s some ones turn and the next it’s mine.”
The village carpenter was asked to make a wooden coffin, it was hand carved within two days.
“We have been able to cover the cost of the coffin by donations made by friends.”
Family members and friends arrive to collect the coffin for the deceased.
“Her bedroom is emptied and her body placed in wake. Seats are placed in her room for guest and family. The body is adorned and covered with white veils. Coal and copal are burned regularly.”
After suffering from a back complaint an elderly woman dies on the 31st of October.
“The bread of the dead is baked in mud ovens heated with burning wood.”
The village baker is helped by his family in order to bake the bread for the whole community.
“My mother’s ánima is still in the room, she will be here for some time before she goes to the other world.”
Relatives, friends and the village band visit the family and the dead person all through the day and evening. It is believed that after the body is buried the soul can remain in the family house for several days.
“A room is dedicated to the serving of these foods for our friends.”
Large corn tortillas are prepared by the family women and female friends. Some of them are covered with red chilli. These tortillas are accompanied by a plain black bean soup, if wished it can be flavoured with salt and red chilli. These are the only foods eaten and served to guests during the novenario.
“She hadn’t been feeling well for some time, I think she felt it was time to leave.”
Family and friends gather together to cook, entertain guest and support the family of the departed.
“My grandfather baked the village bread, I have taken over this task but it is difficult to maintain the old ways.”
San Juan Yaeé’s baker holds two samples of bread of the dead that his grandfather used to bake.
“The villagers are attracted by the aroma that fills the air and also the dead are preparing for their visit.”
The baker’s granddaughter in the living room, waiting for the bread to be baked.
“I am not sure if my son will keep the tradition but my daughters are happy to help and keep baking the bread of the dead.”
The village baker’s son in the family bedroom, which is next to his father’s oven.
“Here I am, let death take me with her, with her I'm going on a spree.”
About six in the morning a male makes his way home from an all night vigil. Outside the Parish of San Juan Bautista.
“. . . we beseech thee, Lord, for those who died unprepared and everyone else, begging you to grant them all the glory and that we receive well the last rites.”
Family, friends and neighbours attend the burial and mass, celebrated in the village cemetery on the 2nd of November.
“The village’s brass band plays music for us in the cemetery.”
The container next to the musician is filled with home made aguardiente, which is shared and offered to the community in the cemetery.
“A mass service is yearly organised to pray for the souls of all the dead in the village.”
The village comes together for the funeral and the commemoration of the Day of the Dead.
“Family and friends carry out exhumations and burials.”
The family grave is being exhumed and prepared for the new burial. There are no official gravediggers in the village’s cemetery.
“. . . We offer you our deeds and help, those of your Saints; your Mother and your merits; make them soon come out of their prison and receive from your hands, freedom and eternal glory.” (Ninth Day)
The coffin is buried by family and friends.