An alter in Oaxaca
Coping with Death: A Personal Story
Friday, November 14th Morning Edition

Vertamae Grosvenor searched for answers to her young grandson's questions of "why?" when his father died. Grosvenor took her grandson, Oscar, to Oaxaca, Mexico, where death, in its celebratory symbols and rituals, is inescapable. He found solace in performing caretaking rituals in a cemetery and building an altar to his father, and in seeing others grieving for their ancestors alongside him. Oscar found comfort in everyone being "even."

You can read the transcript:

ALEX CHADWICK, HOST: In the summer of last year, the son-in-law of NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor was killed in a head-on car crash with a drunken driver. It happened before dawn on the day that Vertamae was to have put her then-8-year-old grandson on a flight to Chicago where his father would have been waiting.

She struggled with how to help the child bear the loss of his father. And she decided to turn to a culture different from her own.


VERTAMAE GROSVENOR, NPR REPORTER: My son-in-law Beau (ph), as he was called, was a musician, a bass player. When his son and namesake Oscar asked why, why did this happen to my dad, I choked, remembering as a child how my elders were able to utter words of solace with ease and certainly, but I couldn't. I felt that meaningful answers to Oscar's "why?" required a faith deeper than I had at the time.


One night, weeks after Beau's memorial service, I woke from the deepest part of sleep with Oaxaca on my mind. Shortly after my mother passed in 1993, I went to Oaxaca, Mexico on assignment during the Days of the Dead celebration. Death was everywhere in Oaxaca. It was impossible to avoid a direct confrontation. And yet, I came away comforted.

Market in Oaxaca, Photo Credit: Marina Grosvenor
So, hoping to make it better, I decided to take my grandson Oscar to Oaxaca.


Death was everywhere in Oaxaca. In the markets, vendors sell crystallized sugar skulls with sequined eyes, chocolate coffins, clay skeletons. Death designs cut out of flowing colored tissue paper dance around the city. Murals and paintings display death with a thousand different faces. There are altars and offerings for the dead in restaurants, churches, homes and hotels.


In our hotel room, we built an alter for Beau, made of bought things from the market in Oaxaca and treasured things that we'd carried with us from home. It was Oscar's first altar.
Oscar Brown IV

OSCAR, GRANDSON OF VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: I kind of like it that -- about the altar, because I, I put a lot of nice things, like my necklace that has Jesus being born, on it. And I was gonna put my watch, but since I put my necklace there it won't fit. I hope that my dad will come to eat some candy or stuff, and he could probably smell all these flowers from up where he is. So, I hope my dad could find the altar, wherever he is.

GROSVENOR: The ancients believed life is the dream from which death awakens us. When I read they buried food, drink, and personal belongings with their dead, I recalled a similar custom among my people, the Gullahs (ph), who call a funeral service a "home going."

PABLO, CEMETERY VIGIL GUIDE: We're in hoho (ph). Hoho (unintelligible) in Oaxaca. These mystical people who come to welcome the souls of the relatives. And then to -- so, when they arrive, they, they, they have to feel the grace beautifully decorated, and of course candles, flowers. And the whole family is waiting for them.

GROSVENOR: Pablo is our guide at the cemetery vigil for the dead.

PABLO: To get to the cemetery, we must go this route.

GROSVENOR: This way, OK.

The sweet scent of the flowers and the sharp smell of the incense and wood smoke fill the air. Lamp and candle flames turn the dark night orange red. The graves are adorned with the favorite things of the departed. And flowers, flowers, and flowers. Oscar discovers some placed too close to the candles.

OSCAR: Yeah, this one's burning those top leaves down. See, this one's burning them. This one's burning those.

PABLO: OK, so I'll fix this one and you go around and fix the other one.

GROSVENOR: No one seems to mind Oscar and Pablo moving among the graves, putting out flower fires.

PABLO: OK, yes. That's better now. Can you move the -- can you move the candle a little bit toward me?


PABLO: No. It's...

GROSVENOR: Move the candle a little bit, Oscar.

OSCAR: Perfect. I saved it.


GROSVENOR: You saved it.

PABLO: Yes. Great.

OSCAR: But now...

GROSVENOR: Family reunions are going on all over the cemetery. People are talking, eating, and communing with their relatives, living and dead.

OSCAR: They're feeling what I'm feeling, but in a different way, because somebody else died in their family. And I think they're under a lot of stress, too. So, everybody here is even.


GROSVENOR: Back at the hotel, I ask Oscar what he meant by being "even."

OSCAR: Everybody lost a mother or father or aunt when they get real, real old. Or they could die in a car accident like my dad, or they could die from breast cancer like my auntie, or they could just die normally like my great,great grandmother. It's kind of hard to go through with whoever died and can do it, you gotta -- you just gotta go on and go on and go on. You can never give up on your ancestors.

GROSVENOR: I came to Oaxaca hoping to make it better, hoping to help Oscar find an answer to why death came for his dad. We left Oaxaca without answers, but we came away comforted.

Did you feel his presence any time you were here?

OSCAR: Yeah.


OSCAR: When I was sleeping, I felt something scratching me, and I wasn't.


GROSVENOR: What do you mean?

OSCAR: When I was asleep, I, like, felt some -- a wet, some wet things, like on my cheek right here and -- and I felt something wrap around me like this. And that's, I think it was my dad giving me a hug and a kiss good night.

CHADWICK: NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer who lives in Washington, DC. Her story was produced by Latino USA's Maria Martin (ph), mixed by Jim Wallace, and edited by Sharon Green.

The story's part of a series, "The End of Life: Exploring Death in America," which continues on MORNING EDITION and other NPR News programs over the next several months. More information about the End of Life series is available at our website at

Copyright 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part, including any electronic download or any other form of copying or distribution without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Office of the General Counsel at (202) 414-2040.