Kaeanne Louks, acrylic, 11” x 14”

Day of the Dead

By Lauren McKee '22

ENGL-290Y: Travel Writing in the Yucatan

Lauren focused on our visit to the cemetery in Zinacantan on the Day of the Dead. Lauren’s essay does a great job of immersing the reader in her experience through close observation and attention to detail, and I love how she creates a sense of mystery and wonder, especially with her ending.

-Kim Koza

I stood on the sidewalk where the warm Mexican sun greeted me. The air still held an edge of chilliness, enough that the shadows were cool to stand in. A line of enclosed motor taxis waited in the street to take us to the cemetery. My study abroad group and I were in Zinacantán, Chiapas to see the town’s cemetery during Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I had specifically signed up for the fall semester because of this festival. The students from my college who had studied abroad during the fall semester in Mexico said Dia de Los Muertos was an unforgettable experience.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated to honor the spirits of loved ones who have died. Here, death is something that is celebrated, unlike in the United States where grieving often takes place behind closed doors. People believe that on Dia de Los Muertos their deceased family members come back to visit them. In order for the spirits to cross over into the land of the living, family members must place a photo of them on an altar. The celebration is a sacred time and tradition for many in Mexico.


My friends and I all climbed into the same motor taxi. I instantly warmed up as we all desperately crammed together to fit into the taxi. As the driver started up the mountain toward the cemetery, the wind gently blew my hair across my face. I peeked through the thick plastic door that enclosed the taxi to look at the mountains as we drove. The fresh air and the view of the mountains were intoxicating. The warmth and the swaying of the taxi threatened to lull me to sleep. Instead of sleeping, I thought about San Juan Chamula, where we had visited the town’s church. I had no pictures to show my family of the town, only the images I had committed to memory. Lisa Munro, our study abroad director, explained that the town forbids photography because oftentimes tourists take pictures of Indigenous people without their consent. I am grateful that we didn’t have the opportunity to use our cell phones because what we saw could not be captured in a photo. The outside of the church had a Catholic style, with tall stained glass windows; however, the inside told a different story.

I am grateful that we didn’t have the opportunity to use our cell phones because what we saw could not be captured in a photo.

When I stepped inside the church it became evident that Mayan and Catholic traditions had been mixed together. The smell of incense permeated the room, and emerald green pine needles lined every inch of the floor. Warmth slowly spread throughout my body as the heat from the burning candles and peoples’ breath filled the room. I peered in astonishment, through the heavy smoke created by the incense, at the various statues of Catholic saints adorned with yellow and orange marigolds. Some people were smiling and laughing in the church, while others sat solemnly among the pine needles. The sound of guitars and accordions swirled around the room, along with the light that filtered through the stained glass windows. I tried my best to make myself small in the church. I wasn’t entirely comfortable being in a place that was irrefutably sacred for others.

Kaeanne Louks, acrylic, 11” x 14”

Kaeanne Louks, acrylic, 11” x 14”

When we stepped outside the church, men and women were walking through the town’s square. The men were dressed in blue jeans and had on black woven wool ponchos with white cowboy hats. They seemed like cliche western cowboys who would ride off into the sunset without looking back. Most of the women had their midnight black hair braided and wore black wool skirts. The women had on different embroidered shirts, but almost all wore a shawl that covered their shoulders. These were the traditional outfits for Mayan men and women of that area.

As we walked back towards the van, a woman in the back of a pickup smiled. I quickly looked over my shoulder, sure that she wasn’t smiling at me, but, when I looked back, she was closer this time and she looked me straight in the eyes as she smiled. I saw her gold tooth and sparkling brown eyes. She looked at me with pure delight and kindness. Her wrinkled face had been tanned by the sun. As the truck drove by I felt the impulse to run after it and hold her hand. I looked around, hoping someone else had seen her as well. I was disappointed to realize that everyone seemed lost in their own thoughts and were reflecting on what they had experienced.


As our motor taxi reached the top of the mountain, my heart began to beat faster; I had waited for months for this moment. When we reached our destination, we climbed out of the taxi and began to walk up the steep, rocky hill that led to the cemetery. I was embarrassed as I watched Mayan women carry their babies and walk gracefully down the hill, and I told myself I was only winded because of the high altitude. When I reached the top, I could see over the largest part of the cemetery. Hundreds of flowers, each a different shade of dandelion yellow, violet purple, and tiger orange, were placed on gravestones. The flowers had been beautifully and lovingly arranged. Families sat next to their loved ones’ graves as they ate and drank. They were visiting with their loved ones, dead and alive. Voices filled the air, along with the laughter of children holding kites and running through the cemetery.

Families sat next to their loved ones’ graves as they ate and drank. They were visiting with their loved ones, dead and alive.

The view of the mountains made me feel small as I wandered further into the cemetery. We were high enough that I could see clouds below us in the distance. As I turned, taking in the view of the cemetery again, I saw an old man doing the same. His eyes glistened as he took in the scene. He wore a tan jacket and well-worn cowboy boots. His face was shadowed by a large cowboy hat, and he seemed absorbed in old memories. He looked like a man who had seen and endured many trials in his life. I wondered if he had grown up in Zinacantán and visited this cemetery since he was a little boy. No one appeared to notice the old man. As I stood there, he looked at me, or rather through me, and then walked away. I watched as he disappeared into a group of people and I asked myself if I had seen a ghost. Deep in the mountains, in a cemetery filled with hundreds of flowers, I was no longer sure what was real and what was not.