Why the Ancients Aren’t Afraid to Die
The trees parted and the golden light appeared in the distance. I escaped the darkness of the forest and emerged onto the bluff, where suddenly everything felt more expansive, more possible.
The sky had turned pink and the ocean reflected a shimming line of light across its tumultuous surface. Waves crashed forcefully against the rocks, warning me not to enter.
I walked down the narrow path that wove through the grassy valley and the earth beneath me became sand. The moon showed only her shadow and I saw mine in her reflection. I saw my bits that were hidden when I bathed myself in light. They surfaced mercilessly by the darkness of the moon, and I knew that I had to feel them this time.
When I reached the shoreline, without another human in sight, I came down to my knees, and I began to cry.
After feeling extreme bliss on what I considered “my honeymoon” in Zipolite, I felt an opposing emotion when I got to the nearby beach town Mazunte. For the first time in a long time I felt sadness. Deep, heart throbbing sadness.
It was New Moon in Scorpio, a planet known for surfacing emotions that force us to look deeper within. Scorpio is often considered the physical embodiment of transformation through release, the reminder of rebirth that can only come through death. This new moon represented a time to burn away the obstacles and rise from the ashes like the phoenix.
As I sat there crying, lit by the orange light of the setting sun, I struggled to let go of my own obstacles. How could I rise from the ashes if I hadn’t let my barriers burn down?
I thought about Kali. The Hindu goddess of pure blackness who brings triumph through death and destruction. Kali, also known as “The Dark Mother” is considered both the giver of life and the consumer of her own children. She endlessly creates, destroys, and transforms. Some call her the symbol of Scorpio itself. Others call her the very vehicle for salvation.
Sitting with the ocean under Scorpio’s moon, seeking my own salvation, I called on Kali.
“Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo, Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo. Oh great mother we invoke you in this place, take away our pain, and fill us with your grace. Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo. Burn it all away Kali, burn it all away.”
The last time I sang this song I was sitting on the ground in front of the Santa Domingo in Oaxaca City on Halloween, leading a death ceremony with a group of strangers from my hostel.
I had arrived in Mexico City the day before, after a red eye flight from Costa Rica. Still floating from my long journey, I met my Belgian friend Julie, who I lived with last year in Puerto Viejo.
Used to funeral processions on her birthday, which falls on All Saints Day, she wanted to go where people allegedly laughed at death. She wanted to go to the party. And I had romanticized the Day of the Dead for as long as I could remember.
So there we were, on an eight-hour bus journey to Oaxaca, the most famous city in Mexico to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Or as they call it, Dia de los Muertos.
A few hours into the ride and I began to feel hot and clammy and my throat throbbed. I was getting a fever after two days of transport and air conditioning. Unable to sleep I started watching one of the films that played loudly on a screen above the aisle, which happened to be a post apocalyptic zombie flick.
The combination of zombies and my building fever brought on a strange fear. So I began to meditate. I envisioned my body filling with golden light, purifying me of illness, darkness, and death. I thanked my fever for burning away the sickness that made light beings look like zombies. In my mind I sang,
“Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo. Burn it all away Kali, burn it all away.”
I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but I was tasting what the Aztecs call Mictlan. Also known as “the underworld,” Mictlan is the place where we’re created, destroyed, and reborn. Mictlan is the place of transformation. And in a sense, we’re all there all of the time.
When we arrived in Oaxaca, I marveled at the glorious altars created in honor of Dia de los Muertos. I photographed the displays that held photos of dead loved ones, beautifully painted skeletons, local fruit, sweet bread, and occasionally plates of mole and rice like a madwoman. The altars donned every corner, every restaurant, every home, every shop, and I ate each one with my eyes.
Save for the sugar skulls and beer cans, these displays reminded me of the daily offerings I saw in Bali, the only Hindu country I’ve ever traveled to. The offerings in Oaxaca contained the same flower, the marigold, as well as treats loved by the dead ones.
In Bali the offerings are for the Gods, in Oaxaca they are for the spirits of dead ancestors. Though in ancient tradition, Dia de los Muertos is also intended as a form of worship for Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of Mictlan. The queen of the underworld. The lady of the dead. And she reminded me an awful lot of Kali.
In Bali, the offerings are given daily, in Oaxaca they happened only during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations. A time when many people believe those who have died return in spirit from the underworld to be with us in our world. They believe this portal between the dead and the living opens at midnight on Halloween.
So we followed the crowds that night to the cemetery, to welcome the dead.
Food stalls lined the endless road leading to the entrance and children set off fireworks and noisemakers. I heard a band playing Beatles covers and realized it was coming from the center of the cemetery. The resting place of the dead appeared to be full of life.
Candles and bouquets of marigolds decorated the gravestones and crowds of people made their rounds, taking photo after photo. Though amidst all of the stimulation, I felt nothing.
I was hoping to feel peace, mystery, and magic. I was hoping to feel the essence and the spirit of the ancient peoples and all of their protectors. But in this space that lacked the intention and the heart of the tradition, I felt nothing.
We continued to the next cemetery, in a small pueblo just outside of Oaxaca City, and I immediately felt the difference. A brass band played a ballad beside two food stands and a woman selling bouquets of flowers. Graves stood guarded by families who appeared in a state of mourning. This cemetery felt less celebratory and more somber. I put away my camera.
In the center of this cemetery, a Catholic ritual took place.
Julie and I continued to walk, taking care not to step on any gravestones, which was not an easy feat. She stopped at a grave whose candles had gone out from the wind and attempted to relight them with small sticks she found on the ground.
A man walked over to us and handed us matches.
“This is my aunt, my uncle, and these are my grandparents.” he said, gesturing towards the gravestones beside us. He didn’t appear somber at all. In fact, he was smiling.
He told us where other members of his family were buried and we chatted casually about the festivities and traditions. Then we spoke of the dead.
“Maybe one day, we’ll wake up too,” I said with a wink.
The Zapotecs (the predominant indigenous group in Oaxaca) believe that the state we call living is actually an illusory dream state, and only when we die do we finally wake up to reality. Death, therefore, is something to celebrate rather than fear. It’s the gateway that leads us to greater understanding.
He smiled and began to tell us more about his family. Both of his Grandfathers were Zapotec shamans and he felt a deep connection with his ancestry. He spoke about plant medicine, temescal ceremonies, and mostly he spoke about “death”. Which for the indigenous people of Mexico seems to be another word for “life”.
“Every day we die,” he said. “And every morning we wake up, we are transformed. We are new. Everything in nature follows this pattern. The fruit falls from the tree to be eaten by the Earth. The seeds from the fruit eventually grow into trees. And one day those trees bear fruit too. All life continues.”
As someone who has feared death all of her life, I considered what it might be like to be raised in a society that holds this belief. I considered if suffering over death might cease if we all truly believed that life was eternal and that we could always call on our loved ones from the other side.
I considered if funerals might be more like Sweet Sixteens or Bar Mitzvahs or Quinceneras if we saw death as nothing more than a right of passage on our journey towards spiritual enlightenment.
That evening back at the hostel, a group of us discussed our experience at the cemeteries. Everyone seemed to have missed the ceremonial aspect, wishing that they had been guided towards connecting more deeply with the tradition. So I suggested we have our own ceremony at the Santa Domingo, in the middle of the night.
Despite the late hour, the streets were still full of people when we arrived at the Santa Domingo. We came together in circle, joined hands, and I began to sing,
“Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo. Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo. Oh great mother we invoke you in this place, take away our pain, and fill us with your grace. Om Kali Kali Kali Om Namo. Burn it all away Kali, burn it all away.”
Like the rest of Oaxaca that night, we paid our respect to Mictecacihuatl, we just called her Kali.
A few days later, when the festival had ended and the altars had come down, Julie and I went on an excursion to the Hierve del Agua. This magnificent phenomenon reveals the waterfall that once flowed there in the form of petrified rock, as if frozen in time. A new form, in utter stillness, echoing the rushing life of the falls.
Vultures soared overhead and I felt shivers run across my body. Dia de los Muertos had ended, and here were the vultures to eat whatever remained of the dead. The Mayans believe that the vulture is the one who holds the power to convert death into life.
The vultures followed me to the coast after Julie flew back to Costa Rica. As they soared they promised not only to protect me, they promised that through death I too could fly.
Under their watch I loved myself with tremendous passion and felt overwhelmed with bliss. And under their watch I sat with the sunset, and I cried and I cried and I cried. I looked to them and I wondered if I was actually ready to let my sadness die.
Like the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Zapotecs, the Balinese, the Hindus, the Astrologers, and so many other ancient wisdom traditions, I could see that death is no different from the setting sun. Birth no different from the sunrise. Cells within my body were dying and cells within my body were forming. I was living and I was dying in that very moment. And one day this beautiful body that I live in will also stop breathing. It will die to free me so that I can take shape in another form. All life is eternal.
I wondered, if I could recognize eternal life in so many ways, why was I still resisting something that wanted to die within me? Why wouldn’t I let the things that only hurt me be destroyed? What was I so afraid of losing if I let go?
I stood at the doorway to Mictlan. I could enter and be transformed or I could resist the force and suffer in its quake. I could continue to live in illusion or I could die so that I could finally wake up.
And I wanted to walk through, I wanted to enter Mictlan, but I didn’t know how to open the door. The more I fed the fire, the more it seemed to burn.
So I turned to the water. The force that is not controlled by emotions, rather the force that controls emotions themselves.
And I cried. And I cried. And I cried. I knew that I could stop in a moment and I could smile if I wanted to. But I also knew that my tears were a sweet gift I’d been withholding far too often over the years. So instead of keeping them in, I offered them to her. I offered them to the sea.
I watched them dissolve into the crashing waves, and I sang:
“Holy, holy grandmother, we sing. Wash us clean of our pain and suffering. Give us strength for our new beginnings. From my deepest grace I sing, wash away, it will wash away. Wash away, it will wash away.”
For our new beginnings.