Life and death on the ‘beach of death’

There is something grounding and uplifting about communities in which the dead effectively remain a part of life.

Visitors bathe in the surf along the beach in Zipolite, Mexico.
Zipolite is a tiny coastal town on the Pacific Ocean in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca [File: AP/Jody Kurash]

On June 23, 2020, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck off the coast of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, not far from the coastal town of Zipolite where I had taken up accidental residence at the start of the pandemic in March. I had just sat down to work when the room began to shudder violently as though on the verge of self-combustion, and I dashed out the front door of my house to find the power lines sparking all over the place in a world that was suddenly frighteningly precarious.

Adding to the apocalyptic feel was the vehicle that then came flying by with passengers hanging out the windows, shouting at bystanders to run for the hills or else be killed by an alleged incoming tsunami. This was no doubt a fitting end, I told myself, to my stay in Zipolite – a place whose very name, so it is said, means “playa de la muerte”, or “beach of death”, in the Zapotec language.

There were various theories as to the origins of the name, the most obvious being that this was a lethal stretch of sea, where waves and riptides had caused the demise of countless bathers over the years. Some observers also contended that regional Indigenous populations had viewed Zipolite – positioned as it is at the southernmost point of Oaxaca – as an underworld of sorts.

Following the notification of impending martyrdom by tsunami, I was rescued from the gringa-in-distress pose I had assumed in my doorway by a man whom I had never met. José Luis, who was in his forties but looked much older, motioned for me to jump in his car and then drove me up the road to the plot of land where his extended family resided. I spent the next several hours sitting petrified on his mother’s patio while the family laughed at every aftershock and reminisced about the last major earthquake in 2017 – when there had also been a tsunami alert and the inhabitants of Zipolite had sought refuge in the cemetery on a hill overlooking the town.

This time around, the coast was eventually declared clear and I dragged myself home – only to end up back at the plot of land that night, after the family had concluded that I would probably not be reacting well to a magnitude 5.9 aftershock and dispatched José Luis to fetch me once again.

Six months later, José Luis suffered a fatal diabetic coma and was himself interred at the hilltop cemetery. The burial was accompanied by traditional ranchera music courtesy of a singer and guitarist – par for the course in a country where funerals are often festive, with drinking, dancing and fireworks.

In various parts of Mexico, however, the coronavirus pandemic had put a damper on things, as detailed in a May 2020 article in the Spanish newspaper El País titled “La muerte ya no es una fiesta” – or “Death isn’t a party anymore”. Cemetery closures and social distancing measures meant that, in Mexico City, for example, it was no longer possible to hold wakes serenaded by 10-man troupes of mariachis.

According to historian Federico Navarrete of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who is quoted in the piece, the inability to carry out established funeral rituals was “problematic” for many Mexican communities from not only a “supernatural” perspective but a “community” one, as well, as funerals constituted “collective events” and a venue for the “affirmation of social ties”.

This is not to imply, of course, that death is always a joyous occasion in Mexico. In addition to being ravaged by the pandemic, the nation is in the throes of a femicide epidemic, while the United States-backed drug war launched in 2006 has killed more than 300,000 people and disappeared some 80,000.

But as a Mexican friend recently reasoned to me: since everyone has to die anyway, it is ultimately healthier for those of us still living to make a celebration out of it. For someone like me who grew up in the US – where death is anything but a party, and where my brother and I used to hold our breaths whenever we drove past a cemetery – this attitude was akin to a breath of fresh air.

To be sure, under the US brand of cutthroat capitalism, there are not many opportunities for “community” in death – much less in life. Instead, the powers that be actively pit human beings against each other, reducing existence itself to a matter of individual success or failure in the interest of preserving a system of elite tyranny and institutionalised socioeconomic inequality. It is a deadly arrangement, to say the least – just see reports like this one from the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies: “Inequality Is Literally Killing Us”.

In December 2021, one year after José Luis’s death, I trekked up to the Zipolite cemetery with its giant painted skeleton smiling next to the entrance. Scattered across the graves were the colourful remains of the previous month’s Day of the Dead celebration, one of Mexico’s defining festivities. Papier-mâché decorations, flowers, and alcoholic beverage offerings abounded.

José Luis’s concrete tomb bore a painting of a rooster, a candle, and a framed picture of him holding a Corona beer. I sat on the edge of the tomb with my own beer and slowly replayed the events of June 23 in my head, chortling at the spectacle I had made in my doorway and thanking José Luis for having put up with me. A couple arrived on a motorbike to clean a nearby grave and deposit more flowers, chatting all the while with the deceased.

There is something at once grounding and uplifting about communities in which the dead effectively remain a part of life. And as I headed back down the hill from the cemetery, I felt pretty alive on the beach of death.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.