Marigolds & the Mexican Day of the Dead

Words by
Sally Wilson
Images by
Kenny Viese
| December 10, 2014

I started thinking of my grandfather Jim when the marigolds appeared in Mexico this year. He died when I was twenty-four from the bundled effects of melanoma and lost months he spent in prisoner of war camps eating dandelion soup. Jim was a tall man with a long nose, leather driving gloves and a tweed cap. His handwriting had the formal points and curves of a man who’d worked with numbers and he drank black coffee from a navy coloured mug. Jim had a canary, George, and the two were whistlers. This year the marigolds in Mexico brought his memory back to me.

© Kenny Viese

In Mexico they say that souls follow the scent of marigolds on their way to visit the living and the strange pollen odour does seem enough to reach across to the spirit world and connect it, however transiently, with us. Marigolds flower here after the rainy season ends and their arrival coincides with celebrations for the Day of the Dead. The rain slows over successive weeks in October then abruptly stops and is replaced by marigolds, which flood the country’s consciousness with visions of orange and yellow.

The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is about the connection between life and death. The celebrations take on countless forms across Mexico, but all expressions involve flowers, candles and offerings to loved ones who have died. Piles of marigolds appear at flower markets and in Mexico City the seasonal produce expands to include handmade sugar skulls, paper måché skeletons, pan de muertos and copal incense for the careful construction of shrines. In true Mexican style, all of these things are colourful and four dimensionally alive.

This year in Mexico City I built a shared ofrenda, or altar, with friends. Each of us had particular people on our minds as we worked in half silence. We blacked out a wall with purple papel picado flags and decorated the table in front with chains of marigolds, skinny vases of baby’s breath, candles and framed photos of friends and family who’d passed away. There was a bottle of mezcal, persimmons and sea salt flavoured chocolate awaiting their arrival. Amongst us there was a strong feeling of connection with these figures, the ones who made us who we are.

The eve of Day of the Dead at the flower markets is like peak hour at Benito Juarez airport. Crowds haul oversized bunches of flowers instead of stuffed carry-on luggage but the hustle is the same. Marigolds are delivered by the tonne and sold in bunches that need to be hoisted aloft and balanced on a shoulder in order to make it home, flowers uncrushed.

At the market marigolds are sold under the name cempasúchil, which roughly translates as “twenty petals” in pre-Hispanic Nahuatl. If you’ve ever tried to pull apart a marigold flower, you’ll understand the description. Their round flower heads are formed from an elaborate number of petals all with slightly ruffled edges. The petals pull away and leave a residue on the hands, a giddy mix of pollen, chamomile, liquorice and citrus. You can spend hours pulling apart the marigolds or you can buy bags of them, altar-ready, from the flower sellers.

© Kenny Viese
© Kenny Viese

It was the marigolds that reminded me of Jim, my grandfather. He had a habit of saying “arrivederci” – never goodbye – when he dropped me off at school. The flourish of this foreign word, from another time in his life, made me feel more confident that he’d be back, waiting for me at home time. He deducted two cents from my weekly pocket money when I used slang, which in his books included the words “yep” and “yeah”. He was formal but he deeply loved his grandchildren and showed it by secreting peppermint chocolates into our lunchboxes, tucked in between the rye bread sandwiches and celery sticks packed for us by our biodynamic mums.

On the night when families traditionally gather at the sides of graves to keep company with returned souls, I made my way south of Mexico City to Tlalpan and ate a steaming cup of maize topped with coriander and lime. The warm corn made my nose run and conjured up my grandfather’s face on the day of his funeral. What I remember is his nose and how it seemed longer, more prominent than before. A moth the size of a tea plate fluttered in the doorway that day, just before I stepped inside to see Jim for the last time. I don’t remember if there were flowers at his funeral, though I’m sure it’s a detail that wasn’t overlooked.

The flowers that are used on the Day of the Dead are marigolds, amaranth, red cockscombs, chrysanthemums, gladioli, stocks, calla lilies and baby’s breath. In graveyards all over Mexico but particularly to the south – Mixquic, Oaxaca – or to the west in Patzcuaro, the days of celebration take on a sacrosanct mood and paths of marigold petals are assembled, leading the dead to receive nourishment, simple solace and a mezcal or two after their otherworldly treks. Candlelight, copal and the scent of marigolds pull them in and play across the faces of women, old men in their best Stetsons and the crowds who’ve come to watch or themselves reach out towards something long lost.

In the following week, the bright offerings on altars fade. Photo frames are stood down. The marigolds droop and eventually they die too. In the flower markets poinsettias appear and a new cycle of celebration begins. Ever present though is a part of me that is my grandfather Jim. It’s most obvious in my nose but equally discernible in the sharp form of his memory, which comes up every now and then. That connection is one that doesn’t lessen with the years or with the seasonal loss of the marigold flowers.

All images by Kenny Viese

© Kenny Viese
© Kenny Viese
© Kenny Viese
© Kenny Viese