Dia De Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever

For many Americans, Halloween is a time of festivity and fun, as we brave the dark streets to celebrate the spookiest, most unsettling elements of our culture. We deck ourselves out in bloodied rags, animal ears, and macabre, smelly plastic masks. We pretend to float under sheets with ratty eye-holes torn out, and stick knives into massively plump pumpkins just for the heck of it! We embrace the horror of life, myth, and legend for one ghoulish night and it is absolutely fantastic. It's the one night we’re allowed to be someone (or something) else. Yet, what we don’t often do is celebrate outside of our cultural sphere. Nobody thinks of Halloween as a time for joyful mourning! I may only speak for myself, but we can’t even handle thinking about the dead at their own funerals. I think that’s called the “American sensibility.”

Nearly three-thousand years ago on November first, a holiday later coined the Day of the Dead (or Dia De Los Muertos) originated in Mexico. This event was not meant to scare the living crap out of your friends, but to celebrate those who have passed over with beautiful altars, offerings, and intricate art. Traditionally, the altars erected are stacked upon crates and delicately adorned with mementos that person enjoyed during their lifetime. These "ofrendas," often intended to lead the spirit back to their altar, can consist of fresh bananas and oranges, framed photos, marigolds, incense, candles, sugar skulls, and many other items.

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Despite the fact that Andrew and I couldn’t drive down to Mexico this year to experience the real thing, we wanted to do something outside of our norm (like usual). We discovered that the Hollywood Forever Cemetery hosted a massive Day of the Dead celebration, and it seemed like the perfect fit. We were told to expect dancing, costume contests, altars, offerings, traditional music, and hundreds of people. And trust me, we underestimated the full magnitude of the word “hundreds.”

Immediately upon arrival we were stressed out of our brains. Imagine driving towards downtown LA on a Friday at five o’clock, and then multiply the traffic that you see by ten. This humongous celebration was held on top of a literal cemetery. The reason parking was so few and far between was most likely because when building a cemetery, I doubt the architects are making a point to accommodate a giant block party. We drove in circles for a good forty-five minutes before finding one solitary spot at the top of a brimming ten-story parking garage. Off to a good start.

All of that stress was immediately wiped away when we first stepped past the gates: bright lights, colors, beautiful music and crazy costumes delighted our senses. It was so hard for me to collect my thoughts: “I should be elated, but we’re standing on actual gravestones.”  The contrast between light and dark, life and death, was illuminating… but I think that was the point. 

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The altars were so much better than I could have ever dreamed. Most towered over our heads with magnificent blues, yellows, and reds. There was incense constantly burning besides intimate photos of the deceased, paired with handmade sculptures and mouth-watering pan mexicano. There were altars for close family, for the black men and women sorrowfully killed by police this year, for long-lost unnamed bodies, for children, for scientists, and even for cats. Surprisingly, there were a lot of altars for cats. It was all too much for me. The beauty of so many people that are still alive-and-well celebrating those who are gone but not forgotten was intensely inspiring. I cried at first, but was reminded to be happy that these people had so much love encircling their lives. Tragedy was masked with bright skeleton face paints and burning candles that night. And by the time the sun set, I was joyful and thankful.

We also enjoyed walking through the silent parts of the cemetery where no one dared venture. It was late at night, but the festive lights still danced frantically around the grass and laminated headstones. Between the silent moments, the beautiful traditional dances, the huge main stage with bright, loud music, the eccentric garb, the millions of colors, and the amazing talent around us we felt so full of life! It's hard to intake that much color in one night! 

I could go on and on for hours about how emotional the whole experience was (because that’s what I do best), but more than anything this experience was new and beautiful to my trained eyes. It is so amazing to witness different cultures and traditions celebrating in a way unique to them alone. We are so lucky to see and appreciate the diversity among ourselves, and how special each and every culture, family, and person is. May we never forget to value that gorgeous disparity. I know I will be back next year to indulge my eyes and my heart. 

I’ve learned to be thankful for life, not weary of death by celebrating the Day of the Dead. And I could only hope that when I pass someone sets out some tasty pan de muerto for me.