Throughout Central America, people commemorate and celebrate their loved ones who have departed this life over the course of several days at the end of October and the beginning of November, in a celebration called All Saint's Day, or the Día de Todos los Santos. It has become mixed, in recent years, with Halloween, but the holiday in itself retains much of its "original" (we anthropologists are a little resistant to words like "authentic", "original" and "tradition" since all cultural practices are in states of evolution, change, adaptation, constantly) flavor.
|Cemetery, Todos Santos|
I had originally planned to go to Todos Santos Cuchumatán for the Día de Todos Los Santos, since it coincides with the fiesta titular (the patron saint feast) of the town, but since I was traveling to the U.S. at the end of that week for a conference, and had just been to the U.S. the previous week to visit Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, I decided that I would stay closer to home; it was just too much traveling in too short a time (Todos Santos Cuchumatán is about 3 to 3-1/2 hours' drive.
For several days before the festivity started, the local markets were bursting to the seams with flowers. Large clusters of yellow chrysanthemums, other flowers in a profusion of pinks and purple, some willowy, delicate white baby's breath... in some cases spilling on top of the vegetables that were also laid out for sale. I would see women and men walking with their arms full of flowers and also pine branches (pine needles are used in nearly every Maya spiritual and life-cycle event). I asked about the colors, and someone told me that they correspond to the four basic colors in the Maya cosmovision which are the same as the four colors of corn and the four colors of human beings: red, white, yellow and black (except that since there are not any black flowers available around here -- I guess they haven't found those fancy hybrid roses that one sees at botanical gardens -- purple is the closest substitute). There were also candles and ocote -- the heavily resinous heart of pine, that is used to start fires -- for the offerings that would be made on graves.
We went to look at other graves, Caterino and his wife commenting about what still remained to be done, with the kids scampering around the graves and having a great time chasing after each other and running in the bright autumn sunlight. There were about five or six children -- Caterino and Sandra's two kids, Veronica and Brandon, who are six and three respectively, and then Sandra's youngest siblings and then another few who might have been their nieces and nephews. Sandra's parents were there, and we congregated by the grave of Sandra's grandfather, and arranged flowers on top of the pine needles, and Sandra's mother placed a candle on the ground near the head of the grave (well, the end a turquoise cross had been planted), cupping her hand so it would catch flame since there was a bit of wind. We then sat down (the kids sat down for brief intervals but kept running around and playing) and refreshments were served (I don't like using the passive voice much but I don't remember who it was who served the refreshments) -- a cola beverage and some sugar-wafer cookies in individual packages.
Nearly every grave had some kind of adornment on it. Many had placed flowers in make-shift vases -- plastic beverage bottles or metal cans that had been cut in half, or recycled glass jars. As the sun went down in the direction of Santa Cruz (the cemetery is just to the west of the town), the rays came in at an acute angle and cast strong shadows on the ground and the graves: the light is so amazing at this time of year and everything was bathed in a lovely rich tone.
The kids -- not just the ones with whom I was wandering but many other children as well -- uninhibitedly raced around the cemetery, clambered on top of graves, and invented games. They frequently ran back to check in with me, to see where I was going and what I was doing. No one seemed disturbed or to find this disrespectful of the dead; it is hard to imagine this scene at a cemetery in the U.S.
Death is part of life; the dead are part of the same family as those who are still alive -- they do not stop being part of the family simply because they have left this life -- and so the cemetery is treated like a natural extension of the community, or rather an integral part of the community.
The woman in the photo to the left was visiting her sister's grave, along with her daughter, and when I walked past she was sweeping the dirt, arranging the pine needles to her satisfaction and fastening bunches of marigolds and other flowers. She saw me taking photos and asked me to take a photo of herself and her daughter by the sister's grave.