Making Memory in a Megalopolis: A Photographic Ethnography of the Daily Life of Cemeteries in Mexico City

Reyes-Cortez, Marcel Andrew. 2010. Making Memory in a Megalopolis: A Photographic Ethnography of the Daily Life of Cemeteries in Mexico City. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

In this thesis I explore the range of complex social relationships and practices encountered in the cemeteries of Álvaro Obregón, Mexico City. The research, conducted over several periods of fieldwork, aimed to produce a visual ethnography of the social life of cemeteries by combining photographic techniques, participant observation and interviews. The narrative and visual data collected during fieldwork demonstrate the ways in which the cemeteries of Álvaro Obregón reflect the sentiments and actions invested in producing social and visual spaces that commemorate the dead.

The conjoined landscapes of the living and the dead are spaces of personal and collective grief, charged with emotions, and shaped by ethical dilemmas on the part of the bereaved, mourners, the cemetery workers and the fieldworker. Profound dilemmas arise because of the dramatic expansion of the city’s population. High rates of population growth and vigorous urban development throughout the city have placed the existing landscapes of the dead under enormous pressure to make way for the living. On the one hand, the thesis considers the arguments of some residents of Mexico City for rejecting cremation, now accepted by the Catholic Church as a rational solution to the problem of shortage of burial space; on the other, it shows how other residents opt for cremation but devise a range of strategies to produce a sense of permanence and presence of their dead. This is achieved largely through the manipulation of material objects, including photographs.

The need to recycle burial sites means that exhumations are quite frequent and the thesis provides a detailed visual record of the quality and demands of the work of exhumation and preparation of graves. The thesis also explores the range of daily activities and yearly rituals involved in sustaining the space of the cemetery and in supporting the intense, long-term relationships reproduced internally by mourners, regular, daily and casual visitors and cemetery workers.

The thesis provides a detailed account of the economy of the cemetery and its links with the city via the work of religious, funeral parlours, stonemasons and many others who contribute to the making of this space. Attention is also paid to the ways in which the private and the public are expressed as separate yet merging spheres, marked by yearly commemorations and festivities such as the Day of the Dead that are occasions for intense social and economic activity in the cemetery. The thesis also illustrates the importance of attachment, whether to kinship, friendship or other networks and relationships that define access to the cemetery, whether for burial or for employment as a worker in Álvaro Obregón. The thesis shows how the dead in Mexico City remain important members of families of the living and how the living actively and dynamically integrate and maintain the ‘dead persons’ as social participants in their lives and daily practices.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)


visual anthropology, photography, ethnography, cemetery, memory, material culture, visual culture, mexico city, the dead, death, commemoration, memoralising, mourning, funerary practices.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Anthropology > Centre for Visual Anthropology (CVA)



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

17 Feb 2012 17:38

Last Modified:

14 Sep 2022 09:16


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