Feeling Alive on the Day of the Dead

Photo opportunity

The street outside Hollywood Forever swarmed with people.  My dear friend Daniel assumed we would park inside the cemetery gate, but it became clear as we crept up Santa Monica that wasn’t likely to happen.  He made a circle around the block past Paramount, then let us out.

It was good he’d already bought us tickets.  The ticket line was long enough to be scary in itself.

More than half of the people coming in had painted their faces like skulls.  I thought about the anonymity that greasepaint could give.  Johnny Depp could be here.  Lindsay Lohan.  Paris Hilton.  If they weren’t traveling with an entourage, how would you recognize them?  They could pass as any nameless skeleton.

This elaborate tableau went beyond my conception of an altar.

Some people had bisected their faces so that only one side was grinning and white.  I used to have a Maya-style black clay mask like that, which a friend brought back from Guatemala.  Those half-faces were creepier to me than the whole skulls.  The anonymity was shattered as the bearers claimed their own mortality, their own individual skulls.

In contrast to to the anonymous calacas stood the altars.  Photos of dead faces gazed out at the crowd, standing amidst skulls of every hue, painted with flowers and curlicues, festive and happy.

Altar of Calaveras

When asked, some of the altar creators spoke about their loved ones.  Others sat or stood, mute in their grief.

I felt like an intruder, like I spied on a ritual meant to be private or, at least, shared amongst a community who understood and felt the same loss.  But the top prize for the altars was $3000, so there was an element of theatricality, of artistry, that was meant for consumption and display.

My thoughts wound around the anonymity of death, the universality of it.  Death will erase us all and our skulls will likely not be enameled crimson or spangled with daisies.  But memory is specific.  Memory keeps us alive long after our flesh has fallen away.

I kept hearing snatches of the old Shriekback song:  “Everybody’s happy as the dead come home.”  It was a lot to process on my birthday, but like my birthday trips to Pere Lachaise and the Sedlec Ossuary and ever so many more graveyards, there was nowhere I would have rather been and no one with whom I would have rather spent my birthday.  It was great that Hollywood Forever would throw a party that made me feel so alive.

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. My science fiction trilogy, The Dangerous Type, will be published by Night Shade in 2015. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
This entry was posted in Cemetery essay and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Feeling Alive on the Day of the Dead

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #5: Hollywood Forever | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  2. Pingback: Day of the Dead at Hollywood Forever | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

What would you like to add?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s