6 Apr

Have you ever noticed the occasional roadside shrine at home? You know, the simple cross erected on the side of the road at the sight where a loved one has died in a terrible accident. Sometimes they have a few mementos like a photo or a stuffed animal. Down here it’s an art form and they are everywhere.

Up until recently, the roads have been narrow, and poorly maintained, with steep cliffs, and sharp corners. Not to mention no lighting or guardrails, plus moving targets in the form of large farm animals wandering across the roads freely. The lines painted on the road seem to be a mere suggestion as to which side of the road one should stay on and passing on blind, uphills is common. The laws requiring seat belts to be worn does exist, but enforcement is non-existent and the push to educate against drinking and driving has only just recently begun.

When shrines become this big, they become roadside attractions and it's not unusual to see picnickers, and others taking advantage of the shade. Sometimes they will even light a votive candle in thanks.

When we first started driving down here, we were amazed at just how many shrines we saw, now we barely notice them, unless they are something special or it’s Day of the Dead. A shrine here can be as simple as a metal or cement cross or as elaborate as a cathedral. We have seen ones ranging from plain to extremely beautiful, from comical; designed to resemble the tractor of the semi the man was driving, to macabre; displaying pieces of the wrecked vehicle, to outright kitsch.

This is what I mean by macabre. It's not unusual to see pieces of the vehicle the individual was killed in displayed with the shrine.

A lot can be told from the shrines, such as wether or not the dead individual was survived by loving family and what their financial situation was and if it’s gotten better or worse. If survived by caring relatives the original marker will eventually be replaced by a more permanent one, sometimes a much more elaborate one. There will also be a fresh wreath placed on it during the celebration of the Day of the Dead and any other personal family celebrations. Sometimes it becomes obvious that the dead individual was either not very loved or the family has moved away or died out. The marker never receives any new wreaths and gradually rusts away,  falls over or is vandalized.

This shrine has been vandalized and may be abandoned

Now, I must digress a bit here and explain what Day of the Dead actually is. It is part remembrance, part celebration and part appeasement of the deceased family member, and is a completely Mexican festival. The celebration covers 2 days, and is accompanied by special cakes, sweets and candies, many of which are shaped like skulls. Children are honoured on November 1st using white flowers and candles, while adults are remembered on November 2nd. The surviving family members, clean and tidy up the cemetery plot, and the road side shrine if there is one. New, fresh wreaths are placed, along with maybe a fresh coat of paint. Then at Midnight, the family will go to the cemetery and bringing food will set up a place to eat, making sure there’s a place set at the table for the deceased. Then they will commune with and celebrate their lost family members in a happy and colourful celebration.

In some instances these shrines become bigger and bigger as time passes. They start to incorporate bigger buildings with gardens and benches and take up more ground beside the highways. The biggest ones we’ve seen can be entered like small churches. The most amazing thing about these shrines is their immovability. They are never touched by road work and even when the Government is building new stretches of road or straightening out curves, the road will be built around them.

Here you can see the original cross with the name plate, and the newer, growing shrine in front

You can see the new shrine growing in front of the old one and new flowers in place. This one is well looked after.

There is an amazing array of things that are placed in these shrines, pictures, photos, baby shoes, teddy bears, money, cans of beer and or pop, locks of hair, silk flowers, crucifixes, crosses, statues of Jesus and Mary, articles of clothing, letters of loss or love, cans of food, strands of garlic and of course votive candles. All either as a loving memento, a remembrance or as something the deceased used or loved in life or can use in the afterlife. Just because the vast majority are Catholic doesn’t mean that a little of the primitive religions that where here before the Spanish arrived, hasn’t crept in.

This shrine has a fair amount of stuff in it, but we've seen far bigger ones that have so much stuff in them that you can't differentiate any of it.

I said in my last blog that the Mexicans really know how to party, well, they really know how to grieve and at the same time celebrate life and death as well! Unlike our placid, boring cemeteries at home, designed for the ease of care  by the groundskeeper, here they are a riot of colour, size and shape. When I asked why, I was told, “We love colour and variety in life, why wouldn’t we want to be surrounded by it in death?”
That my friends is a very good question!



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