Photographs / Domino Farris-Gilbert.
As a neurotic Jew who deeply fears death, it was uncharacteristic for me to attend a festival that celebrates it, but on November 22nd, I followed the skeletons to Hollywood Forever Cemetery for the 12th annual Dia De Los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebration. The website boasts the Hollywood Forever celebration as “the largest and most authentic,” as this was my first time, I cannot confirm this but from what I’ve read that statement is accurate.
Dia De Los Muetos is an ancient tradition that began with the Aztecs and through the thousands of years since its inception, has combined Catholic beliefs and Mexican tradition. The Aztecs thought of death as a continuation or transition from one life to the next. Instead of seeing death as a somber end to life, death is seen as a new beginning. Refreshing thoughts for someone who tends to follow the Woody Allen mantra, “you will meet your horrible end at any moment.” When I entered the cemetery Saturday night I tried to leave my fears at the gate and welcome this new outlook on the inevitable.
Santa Monica Boulevard was filled with white painted skull faces, draped black lace, and tuxedos all shifting towards the beating drums that filled the night rather than the electronica the area is used to on a Saturday. I walked directly toward the drumming to find men, women, and children spinning around in a tribal dance, welcoming the spirits. I wasn’t sure if the goose bumps creeping up my legs were from the spirits or wearing summer clothing in fall weather—either way, with the cold came a new calm. I watched the people dance with their elaborate feather headdresses, bells jingling from their hips, and sparkles reflecting the lights, if not for the traditional music the scene could have been mistaken for an Echo Park barbeque. I focused on the drums and the bodies swaying in front of me and felt life and death coming together to meet in the night. I watched the tribal dance for a long time, fixated on the child drum players who had started off clumsily but slowly the drumming became more in sync and louder until it sounded like a single drum was playing.
I ventured further in to the cemetery, witnessing altars decorated with twinkling lights and large butterflies, smiling skeletons, food, and tequila (apparently the dead didn’t mind sharing their offerings and I didn’t mind indulging in a shot or two). Some looked much like the set-up of my dream picnic. Pictures of the departed were displayed throughout the colorful work. Some paid homage to a loved one, others honored the death of Hollywood greats. A five-piece country band played above one tomb, like the apparition of a twisted Johnny Cash in 1957 crooning a tune like “The Laughing Place” of Disney Land’s Splash Mountain. Though the altar wasn’t as detailed as others, the band is what gave off the spirit of the departed it was meant to represent.
Standing in front of a given altar, I could feel the energy of the person coming through. Each had a unique aura that came together with the décor but rose far above adornments. One had a large red blanket laid out with food covering the entire thing, some real some fake; it exuded an inviting warmth. Another was a giant skeleton holding a computerized slideshow of the departed, a loving energy flowed through.
I strolled past the lake that glowed purple and came to a red-lit area with colorful flags hanging above. There was a stage set up and older Mexican couples were dancing. My night had begun with a dance that was powerful with strong movements, one that awoke the dead and exclaimed to onlookers to seize life, it was the dance of youth and passion. My night was ending with a graceful dance of love and closeness, of holding on to what you have, a love of those present. These two dances truly bridged the arc of life. Neurosis subsided, I returned to the outside ready to fulfill my purpose in the world of the living. (Ilyse Kaplan)
For more pictures click here.