Dead Heads | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

Dead Heads

Local Matters


Published October 25, 2006 at 3:42 p.m.

Halloween is just around the corner. So it makes sense that Rob Coates would put up a Day of the Dead shrine in his Mexican-imports store, Sur al Norte, in Montpelier. For the uninitiated, Dia de los Muertos is a venerable tradition - observed on November 1 and 2 - in which Mexican families honor their dearly departed. Of course, the pagan-meets-Christian holiday also celebrates life with sumptuous feasts, colorful decorations and general merriment. And it has spawned a folk-art industry of little clay skeletons in various outfits and scenarios.

Rather than display an imported shrine, Coates offered a couple of local schoolteachers a unique cultural-studies opportunity: to let their students create shrine objects and install them in his store. But first, the students had to dedicate them to someone. "I said they and the kids could pick whoever, real or mythical," says Coates. "Coincidentally, they both picked Steve Irwin."

The host of Animal Planet's "Crocodile Hunter" met his fate last month at the business end of a stingray. It was a spectacular death, highly publicized and, as it happened, captured on film for all to see. No doubt it made an impression on kids. Still, Coates was a little surprised that entirely independent groups of schoolchildren in central Vermont chose to honor the Aussie naturalist. "It was unusual," Coates muses. "Two schools in two towns."

And two age groups: Sara Baker's second- and third-graders from Moretown Elementary, and Barbara Austin-Hutchins' juniors and seniors from Montpelier High School. The younger students' installation, near Sur al Norte's front entrance, is on a small table and comprises such objects as a little snake, foil pictures and candleholders. The wall-mounted high school altar is, appropriately, much bigger, says Coates - about 7 feet high and 5 feet wide. "There was more artistic license for the high school kids," he reports.

Locals can view the shrines at his River Street shop; everyone else can check out the Mexican merch at

And how is Coates spending the Day of the Dead? "Working, as always," he says. "Then I'll probably just get together with friends."