While the rituals and traditions surrounding death and dying in Oaxaca, as in the rest of Mexico, are largely drawn from Catholicism, they also incorporate popular rites and customs taken from the indigenous cultures of Mexico.
As an example, a popular belief in Oaxaca is that there is something of a dual nature to one’s soul. There is the soul that exists as what Norget in Days of Death, Days of Life calls a “spiritual duplicate” (el otro yo). This “other self” is essentially the traditional Christian soul, but there is also another soul-like essence, something akin to a shadow that may sometimes become separated from the person and go on to exist independently. This shadowlike emanation of the soul leaves the body after death but certain ailments can also cause it to flee the body in life. A shock or fright (susto) can do it as can the gaze of a person with the “evil eye” (mal de ojo). It is also believed that this shadow-soul wanders during sleep and in dreams and so, is susceptible to being stolen by some lurking malevolent spirit (mal aire). There are rituals that can return this wandering shadow to the person, rendering him whole once more.
In Oaxaca it is thought that when a person dies, his soul enters a luminal state, remaining tied to the earth. For the first nine days after death, the deceased (difunto) remains in its former house. On the evening of the funeral and for the next eight days, people gather in the home of the deceased reciting prayers for his soul’s salvation. These nine days are called the Novenario de los Difuntos.
Popular belief in Oaxaca says that the dead can intercede with the saints and sacred beings, but only after their souls have achieved forgiveness for their worldly sins. It usually takes one year of penance before God’s judgment, during which the living pray for the deceased and remember them in religious rituals, all with the express goal of making sure their souls enter into heaven after their penance has been completed. If not sufficiently cared for at the time of death, the dead may remain in the earthly realm, haunting certain sites and causing mischief. More often, the dead appear to the living in dreams and communicate with them, a sure sign that the deceased one is troubled and requires some sort of aid from the living
During that year of wandering the earth the soul remains in a luminal state. The living believe the deceased to still be impure, unsettled, uncontrolled, and even hazardous and so, the deceased becomes an object of pity, concern, and fear. It is essential for the salvation of the deceased that the living pray for and include in their religious rituals, the deceased. Not only will they help the deceased to enter into the afterlife (al más allá) but they, in turn, will earn the future intercession of the dead with the saints on their behalf. It’s a win-win proposition for both the living and the dead.
It’s this intimate connection between the living and the dead that explains the Oaxacan attitude toward death. The dead are not gone, not disappeared; they are merely on one more step of a journey that we will all enter upon. The dead remain. Not only in our memories, but as active partners in our lives and our own salvation.