Oaxaca - Thousands of white candles light up the night in Xoxocotlan cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico. They line the graves in straight, neat rows as a warm fall breeze fills the air with the smell of wax. Bundles of flowers carefully placed on the graves glisten in the warm light.
It's a special time of the year. Mexican families are gathering in the cemeteries to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The families bear gifts for their dead: objects that the deceased favoured in their previous life, a favourite food, maybe a certain liquor or even cigarettes. Some will celebrate until the morning sun outshines the candlelight.
I'm huddled next to the only grave without people. It feels lonely compared to the lavishly decorated plots that surround it. When I first arrive, I'm the only gringo taking pictures, but that's before the tour buses drive up. Now the cemetery is full of other camera-toting shutterbugs wielding an impressive arsenal of multi-media recording devices.
Behind me I can hear a Mexican tour operator speaking in English to a small group. He informs them that some of the families will be staying overnight in the cemetery. Then he asks the family closest to him in Spanish if they plan to stay until the morning. The father politely nods.
I don't want to come off as just another voyeur, but I want to know what the Day of the Dead is about. When the other tourists arrive en masse, I decide to hide out for a couple of hours in the refuge of this forgotten gravesite. I'm hoping that by sitting still for a while I can start to understand.
The origins of the Day of the Dead can be found in pre-colonial native traditions all over Latin America. In Mexico, it's believed that the Aztecs prayed to the gods to show them a way to honour their dead.
The next day they awoke to find the fields covered with marigolds. The Aztecs took this as sign from the gods to decorate their gravesites with the bright yellow flowers.
In their attempts to Christianize the native populations, early Spanish priests changed the dates of the popular holiday so it would fall on the same date as All Saints' Day (November 1). However, church efforts failed to rid the Day of the Dead of its original pagan influences.
Today, families in Oaxaca continue to practise many of the same traditions as their ancestors. Perhaps because a third of the population of Oaxaca is indigenous, the Day of the Dead is as important here as Christmas. The celebration, which starts in late October and ends November 2, is a time for families to remember their deceased loved ones in a happy way.
For almost a whole week the entire town turns into a giant party. Homeowners and businesses construct beautiful altars decorated with the personal items belonging to dead loved ones in hopes that it will entice their souls to visit the family in the preceding days.
An hour into my visit to the cemetery, I'm still sitting perfectly still. In fact, everything is still. I no longer notice the other tourists or hear the sounds of laughter coming from families huddled together in tight groups around the cemetery, traces of candlelight flickering in the pupils of their brown eyes. Instead, I think about my own life.
I remember my friends and family who have died. I recall the things they said to me when they were alive, what we did together. I can even remember what their laughs sounded like and the way their smiles lit up their faces.
But I don't feel sad. Instead I feel a sense of incredible peace. Looking around me at the families in the cemetery, I notice that everyone else also seems very happy.
I think I'm beginning to understand this holiday.
To participate in Day of the Dead celebrations here in Toronto, visit the Spanish Centre (46 Hayden, 416-925-4652) on Friday (November 2) from 7:30 to 11 pm (admission $3 for members, $5 for non-members) or Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West, 416-973-4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com) on Saturday and Sunday (November 3 and 4). Tradition suggests that your head be covered at these events.