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Mexico's Day of the Dead: photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

This Party’s Dead

By
Extract, Q&A | 17 minute read
One terrible Tuesday, Erica Buist and her husband found his father dead in his house. In an attempt to deal with the trauma and the death anxiety we were all raised with, she decided to visit seven of the world’s death festivals – one for every day they didn’t find him. She explains why, in a Q&A and extract from her book

Where do you write?

In my basement ‘office’. When we moved in it was already carpeted and had a lovely brick wall that was painted white. I just loved it. So I put in a desk, a coffee machine, an armchair (where my dog sits and watches me work), and eight floating bookshelves so I could move all my books downstairs – since my book is about death and travelling, visitors were getting spooked by the sheer volume of spines with ‘death’ and ‘die’ in the title, so it’s better that it’s all hidden away in my little cave.

What’s the last really good book you read? And the best film or theatre production?

I loved Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, and I’m enjoying Don’t Get Too Comfortable by the late David Rakoff – his portrayal of western greed and excesses is very funny. Also it was published in 2006 before the world fell so spectacularly to pieces; reading about how awful things are under Bush when we’re now enduring a possibly demented, definitely racist sex pest in the White House gives me this feeling of, ‘Ah…simpler times.’

As for theatre, the one to beat for me is an astonishing 2016 production of Wild by Mike Bartlett.

What book marked you as a child or teenager?

The Secret Garden. It had so much mystery, most of it from the enduring practice of keeping things from children. I think being a child is actually quite rubbish. You have no autonomy, you’re always ‘too old’ for things you like, ‘too young’ for things you want, and adults are constantly speaking in hushed tones about things you’re not allowed to know. Mary snooped, and discovered so much – a mysterious key, a forbidden garden, even an entire bed bound BOY! There’s also plenty of death denial; the garden is secret because someone died there, and I loved Mary’s attitude of wanting to bring it back to life.

What book inspired you to become a writer?

I couldn’t tell you the first; it still happens all the time. I’ll see a stunning bit of description from Maggie O’Farrell or a crystal-clear peephole into the human condition by Zadie Smith, or even just a really well-phrased line from a comedian and I’ll whisper, ‘Oh motherf….that’s good.’ Every time I read I’m inspired to up my game. But I think stand-up comedians shaped my writing more than anyone. I listened to almost nothing else for years, and still no one can convince me of a point like George Carlin, Doug Stanhope, Lewis Black… my god, I’ve been shaped by shouty men.

Pen and paper or laptop?

At uni I was glued to one notebook after another. I still buy them at the same rate, convinced I’ll go back to carrying one with me everywhere and spilling ideas into it even as I chat with friends. In reality, technology has swallowed me whole. Writing by hand doesn’t even feel natural anymore. Now when inspiration strikes I’m either already working on my laptop or I’m somewhere inconvenient like on a treadmill and have to frantically type it all into my Notes app while trying not to trip and make myself into a GIF.

Do you re-read books or is life too short?

No, life’s too short to iron or eat vanilla ice cream, it’s not too short to re-read books. I also re-watch box sets and movies, and I eat the same desserts over and over.

Who is the best fictional hero and villain?

I like Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, if only as an early example of female talk-back badassery. When Claudio attacks her cousin at the altar she says, ‘O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.’ It’s been 400 years and it would still draw gasps if a woman said aloud that she wanted to eat a man’s heart in the Tesco frozen aisle.

Given the topic of my own book, I’d have to say the best villain is Voldemort because he’s this twisted embodiment of the desire to live forever, no matter the cost. Even his name, vol de mort, means ‘flee from death’. He nearly destroys everyone and everything in pursuit of this desire to never die; he’s cancer with a face (though not a nose).

When did you last visit your local library?

A couple of months ago. I was trying to not buy books.

What classic have you lied about reading?

I lied to my teacher about having read Return of the Native over the holidays. Since I was always really chatty in class, I had to pretend I’d just got quiet and contemplative over the summer. I think I did a lot of slow ‘oh totally’ nodding and pensive eye-narrowing. It would definitely have been easier to just read it – which I then did so I wouldn’t have to keep up the act. I’m sure he was wise to me, especially when I suddenly exploded with opinions about it.

Finally, what’s the elevator pitch for the book you’re crowdfunding? 

One terrible Tuesday, my husband and I found his father dead in his house. In an attempt to deal with the trauma and the death anxiety we were all raised with, I decided to visit seven of the world’s death festivals – one for every day we didn’t find him.

 


 

‘DESPIERTEN!’ The command for everyone to wake up is yelled into my ear by a mattress-sized man on whose shoulder I’ve fallen asleep. A chilly wind whips at my face, and there’s a creeping smell of petrol from the engine that’s groaning underfoot. The boat barrels through the misty lake at a speed that’s indecently fast for 4am. Water sprays and splashes through the open sides like licking tentacles. The mattress-sized man continues his urgent message, ‘We’re going to crash!’

I try to see where we’re headed, but in the blackness I can’t focus on anything but the tiny screen on another passenger’s camcorder. The pixels form the obvious conclusion that we’re careering towards a patch of reeds on the edge of an island. Our driver stands at the helm, showing no hint of trying to slow down.

‘Agárrense a lo que sea!’ yells the mattress-sized man.

Grab hold of what? There’s nothing to hold onto besides the lancha itself, the boat that’s about to smash and splinter, so I grab the back of his shoulders and crouch behind him, readying myself.

I can’t believe this. I’m going to die. On Day of the Dead. That’s so embarrassing.

I tighten my grip on the human shield and squeeze my eyes shut.


I have several realisations as I race over the cobblestones of Pátzcuaro. One is that I’m the only one running. Despite living in Mexico for two years after uni, I was never able to work out what constituted lateness. A Mexican can’t give an exact measure of lateness in minutes, just as an Englishman can’t give you a formula for why someone’s tone is rude. So here I am, applying British rules of punctuality, sprinting to get to my 9pm cemetery tour.

The second realisation is that I’ve done a lot more running since I stopped using calendar alerts. It’s been almost a year since my phone chirped ‘Birthday dinner with Chris!’ a week after my husband and I found him dead in his bed. The atheist version of the old adage, ‘If you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans’ is, ‘Don’t put things in your calendar, it will only take the piss out of you later.’ Like the atheist version of anything it’s uglier and less quotable, but since I abandoned calendars, my notes app is a digital ream of last-minute to do lists. A list will never barge into my day to hurt my feelings. It will, however, sit quietly until I open it, at which point I invariably yell, ‘Shit!’ and start sprinting. The last year has been a series of shit-sprints.

The third realisation, which dawns as I settle in a far-back seat on a tourist coach: I don’t know where we’re going. I’d booked it hurriedly with Jaime, who gave a lecture at my hotel about the festival, after we were treated to a rant from an old hippie.

‘For many young people,’ said Jaime, ‘Day of the Dead has become more about partying than remembering the dead.’

‘Oh, TELL me about it!’ barked the old hippie. She was as American as cheese in a can, but was wearing indigenous dress and was draped in a shawl. ‘Day of the Dead 40 years ago was one of the most beautiful, spiritual experiences of my life, but now – drunk people! Everywhere! SO disrespectful! Last year I went to a cemetery and they had a drone! In a cemetery!’ She leaned forward and groaned again, ‘A DRONE!’ sounding not unlike a drone.

I don’t catch our guide’s name, because she introduces herself into a microphone that doesn’t work. She may as well be using a banana. Someone shouts, ‘We can’t hear!’ and she says, ‘Oh’, gives it a shake and says, ‘How about now?’ and we all say, ‘No.’ That exchange repeats itself roughly 17 times. Shaking and wishing fails to fix it, so the guide, who I’ll call Silenciana, decides to just pretend speaking into a foam-topped stick is preferable to raising her voice. I gather through straining and lip-reading that the first stop on the tour is a house for dinner.

After an hour moving through Day of the Dead traffic at the speed of treacle sliding off a spoon, we stop in the middle of a stretch of dark highway. Silenciana sheep-dogs all 45 of us across the road and down a dirt path, and pushes open a pale blue puerta. I’m last through the gate; people are helping themselves to the plastic chairs stacked against a little house with a modest wooden porch. There are no tables, no cooking smells, and two señoras sit in the corner under a dim light, with expressions that suggest they’re searching for the polite way to ask Silenciana, ‘Why are you, a stranger, in our house in the dead of night with 45 of your friends?’

They clearly find the wording as they point us, with visible relief, in the direction of the correct house. Silenciana gasps, blushes fiercely and tries to style it out, ‘OK, vamos to the next street over everybody…’

‘That was a close one!’ an enormous guy chuckles to me as we slip through the gate.

‘Sort of,’ I say, ‘But it was always going to be revealed pretty quickly that we weren’t in the right place, wasn’t it?’

‘De dónde eres?’

‘London.’

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘so – part of Mexican culture is that if people come to your house, you must feed them. It’s very rude not to.’

‘Even if there’s 45 of them and they turn up unannounced?!’

Three other people chime in, ‘Oh yes, absolutely.’

The enormous man is Miguel. He’s here with his wife Leticia and his son, also called Miguel, who is filming everything (EVERYTHING) on his camcorder for his video blog. He’s mounted a light on the top, a perfect torch in the pitch-black night. I’m delighted to latch onto them for the evening.


After dinner (which is all the better for being served by willing chefs), we board a lancha, a long motorboat with a roof and benches running along the open sides. When the boat reaches a section of the lake that could be described as ‘the very middle of the dark terrifying night’, the engine conks out. The lancha fills with the smell of gasoline, and we note the horror-movie mist swirling on the surface of the lake. After 45 minutes the ‘shake and wish’ method that didn’t work on the microphone eventually works on the engine. It sputters to life to a cheery round of applause and chugs us to Uranden Island, where we disembark and make our way along a cobbled uphill street to a cemetery.

It’s stunning. Everything is bathed in a rich, golden light. There must be over 100 graves lit by candles and blanketed in marigolds, photos, food, tequila, love. Families sit at the gravesides, solemn but not morose. A white church looms over us, and moments after we arrive the bells chime midnight at a startling volume. People smile: the spirits have arrived.

Inside the church, a narrow wooden stairway leads to a mezzanine with a window overlooking the cemetery. It’s hardly the spiritual experience one might imagine when offered a high-up view of a candlelit graveyard: it’s tough to meditate on the nature of death when people are leaning out of a window trying to take a photo worthy of posting on Facebook. I peek over their shoulders; the pictures are terrible, wobbly oblongs of orange in the darkness. I make a few rubbish attempts myself, before trying the old-fashioned custom of looking with my high-definition eyes.

Silenciana waves her sign, indicating that we should follow. On the way out of the gate we pass a tiny altar, adorned with just a few flowers and a sign written in felt tip, ‘For all the souls that have been forgotten.’


By 3am and our fourth cemetery, the tourist activity could be called ‘swarming’. I’m catcalled by 12-year-olds, who are only egged on when I confirm in Spanish that no, I won’t be taking off my top. In one corner sits a tent that is clearly being used as some sort of Teenage Shag Palace. I trot back to the lancha where several people have already given up and gone to sleep under their coats.

If it’s been difficult to spend the evening thinking about Chris, the final cemetery puts the nail in the coffin. The scenes before us take too much mental editing for comfort. A tourist with no-nonsense boots sticks her SLR in the face of a woman wrapped in a shawl, snoozing in the glow of the candlelight, and CLICKS her awake. A brash news crew shoves lights, cameras and microphones into the faces of the bleary-eyed graveside families.

Then an incongruous noise cuts through the night – my brain conjures up an image of E.T. shouting, ‘EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’ It’s coming from above my head. I look up. I don’t believe it.

It’s a drone.


‘DESPIERTEN!’ yells Miguel, ‘We’re going to crash!’

I wake with a start since my mattress is yelling, and lean forward to see what’s happening, but my bleary eyes refuse to focus on anything but Miguel’s camera screen. There’s a patch of reeds coming for us. We’re definitely going to crash.

The thick green stalks trill fast past the open sides and flick harshly at our faces. I tighten my grip on Miguel Senior and duck, bracing myself. Cries ring out, a smattering of ‘Puta madre!’…

We hear a soft, muddy scrape. The boat stops gently in the reeds.

There is a silence. A collective breath. A burst of hysterical laughter.

Photo by Archer’s Mark

‘Thank you for joining us on this Día de los Muertos tour,’ says Silenciana into the coach mic – which, like the lancha engine, has sprung miraculously to life, ‘please try to remember the bellas things from the tour, not the problems…’ The coach drops me at the now-silent Plaza. I crawl uphill over the cobblestones to my room, and into bed.


A fitful five hours of sleep is broken by rain drumming gently on the roof. I drag myself out to find coffee, my heart like a wet towel inside my chest. I am lonely and sad and, god, so stupid. Did I really think I could just parachute into a death festival and have some Hollywood-movie epiphany that death is just part of life, actually, and fly home transformed? Did I seriously think I could Eat-Pray-Love my way out of the putrid anxiety of knowing that everyone I love is going to die, fragment, rot and disappear? I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid…

‘Can I take this fork? I dropped mine.’

I lift my gaze and see a small, smiling lady in a crisp white jacket.

‘Of course,’ I say, imbuing my words with fake brightness, ‘take whatever you need, no one’s joining me.’ Damn. That sounded sad. Maybe that’s why she talks to me. Within three minutes I find out she’s a retired American called Barbara, has two little dogs, lives in Jalisco, and is vacationing with her friend Mary Beth. She slips in the words, ‘It’s her last trip.’

‘Her last trip?’

‘Yes,’ says Barbara, ‘cancer – we had the most wonderful time in Capula at the Catrina festival, it had every type of Catrina you could imagine, painted figures, sugar skulls…’

She clearly doesn’t want to be pressed on her friend’s illness so I ask her more about Capula. Halfway through her description, a lady in sandals and an oversized red jacket opens the door. Barbara snaps her attention towards her dying friend so quickly and entirely that I’m sure she mustn’t have long. I open my laptop to give them space. They probably have a lot to get through.

I’m entirely engrossed in my notes when Barbara addresses me again, getting up from the table, ‘It was nice meeting you, Erica.’ She turns to Mary Beth, ‘Are you ready?’

‘Yep,’ Mary Beth replies, ‘ready.’ She gets up, slowly, as if trying not to break anything, dumps her napkin and says, ‘Let’s go out and live a little.’


By the time night falls, I find myself in the crowded Plaza, standing directly under the fireworks. They explode above our upturned faces and rain down in golden streaks, falling at our feet. Children run around laughing, dodging the cascading sparks. Light shows dance across the Plaza’s 17th-century facades as mariachi music blasts out of hidden speakers.

One upside of travelling alone is the freedom to slip away from the party. No one detains you, shoves a drink in your hand or makes exaggerated ‘woohoo’ faces you’re expected to mirror. You can evaporate from the crowd and no one will ever know or care that you were there at all. But Pátzcuaro is a small town, and even after a week you become something of a local. I run into Leticia and the two Miguels; we commandeer a wobbly table at a bar and drink tequila. We reminisce and laugh about the boat ‘crash’ and barging into the wrong house, like it all happened when we were young and carefree. By the time I arrive at the hotel, it’s already approaching midnight, when the souls are supposed to visit.

The room is dark, but there’s a flickering candle on the altar illuminating Chris’s picture. The aroma of marigolds mingles with the smell of the gas fire. I feel tears prickle.

Ok. I’m going to try this.

‘Um…hi Chris,’ I say, with all the awkwardness of an English atheist talking to a photo. ‘Shit, I never put down an ofrenda for you. Hang on.’

I spin on the heel of my boot and scurry out to the bowl of sweets Victoria left for the trick or treaters, and sift through looking for the black wrapper that signifies liquorice. I return to the altar and place a sweet at the foot of his photo.

‘I got you almond flavour. No liquorice, sorry. Probably for the best. I tried to buy you some for Christmas once, but Dion wouldn’t let me because of the time you ate a kilo of All Sorts and had to go to hospital. I know you hate it when I bring that up, but… it’s funny.’

There is a silence, because I’m alone. There’s just the hum of the water cooler, the hiss of the gas fire, the flicker of the candle.

‘I know you’re not really there,’ I say, clearing my throat, imagining trying to explain any of this to him. He’d scoff at this nonsense and pour me a glass of wine. ‘I just… wanted to say goodbye.’

The silence is palpable. I could spread it on a cracker. If this were a movie, this would be a cue for A Sign. A draught would blow in from an unclear source and flutter his picture to my feet, or I’d swear I saw him wink at me from the photo. But of course, none of that happens. The water cooler hums, the gas fire hisses, the world carries on. I let out a breath, and say, ‘Bye.’

I go back over to my bag and start to pack up my things. The sound of the midnight bells wafts in.

My phone buzzes. It’s a text from Dion, ‘Your birthday present is SORTED. Keep the 25th free. No Googling.’

I sit down, take a long breath, and mark it in my calendar.

This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist is currently crowdfunding with Unbound