Big Jim: After the living have gone

Here is a gallery of some of the decorated graves I photographed in 1984, when I spent a week in Ambos Nogales documenting the Days of the Dead. The most striking aspect of Día de los Muertos decoration is the quantity and variety of flowers: marigolds and other cut flowers, coronas and crosses of plastic flowers (many arranged in Nogales florist shops), and home-made artificial flowers. These can be made of colored paper, plastic shopping bags, plastic six-pack holders, soda straws, bits of aluminum, and even bottle caps — all these and more adorn our region’s cemeteries.

What we see in these photographs are a set of transformations: from soda straws and bottle caps to flowers, from machine-made components into works of decorative, meaningful art, from stark white “houses of the dead” into beautiful affirmations of living ties between the two worlds.

I have included arrangements of plastic flowers for one reason: while the flowers themselves are machine-made, they are assembled into wreaths and crosses by local human beings, working in a local aesthetic system. The various workshops developed individual styles so distinctive that when I revisited the empty cemeteries later on, I could identify individual shops through their arrangements of plastic flowers. We are a creative species, and one of the joys of this particular folklorist lies in seeing and documenting the infinite variety of our creations. And overlaying that variety, there are patterns to be discerned and learned from. And this discerning and learning in turn brings its own joy.

There are obviously more things to say and more images to show concerning this important season of the year, but it is really high time I got out of the graveyard and moved to other topics. Until next year, if we’re all still around!

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail

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