Laughing on the Day of the Dead – Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 10)

Nov 1, 2012

By the time we arrive at the Sumpango cemetery at 9:00 a.m., it’s already packed. Food vendors gather at the entrance, selling delicious grilled elote, or corn-on-the-cob, and jocotes en miel, small round fruits soaked in syrup until they have a similar consistency to stewed prunes, only tastier. Our guide Cesar and his college-age daughter Rocio will spend much of the day explaining that the Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is all about feasting.

Food vendors gather at the cemetery entrance, selling delicious grilled elote, or corn-on-the-cob, and jocotes en miel, small round fruits soaked in syrup.

Inside the cemetery, an explosion of color and activity swarms over and around the graves and tombs of the dead. Hundreds of people gather in clutches of nuclear and extended families, attending to low humps of earth and tiny, brightly painted houses where the departed lie buried: patriarchs who passed away in old age, spouses taken in their prime, and children stolen before their time.

We pass two tiny mounds lying side-by-side. “Son gemelas,” Cesar says. “Those are twins.” He reminds us that most of Sumpango’s people don’t have health insurance. Here, death is not that remarkable.

Hundreds of people attend to low humps of earth and tiny, brightly painted houses where departed family members lie buried.

At first, I step among the graves with trepidation. There is precious little space between them and I don’t want to offend anyone by treading on their loved ones. I soon see that this concern is unfounded. The atmosphere is festive and casual, full of genuine joy and laughter.

Every family seems proud to share who is buried beneath their beautiful, if temporary, artwork: a husband, a wife, a young daughter. “I’m sorry,” I say to the father of the daughter, and he receives this with silent equanimity. “Why are you sorry?” his eyes say, “it’s not necessary, not today.”

Today his family is burying a loved one who just died within the past few days. Even they seem puzzled by my excessive concern.

We pass another man digging a new grave. Today his family is burying a loved one who just died. Even they seem puzzled by my excessive concern. If someone must be buried, what better timing than on the Dia de Los Muertos? Nobody seems sad. Today, both the long-dead and the recently departed have returned to visit and feast with those left behind: reason enough to celebrate. I can swear I feel spirits hovering near, if only in the hearts of the believers.

They wave incense burners, and the smoke sends up love and blessings to mingle with the spirits.

Everywhere we turn, people are cleaning, restoring, and decorating gravesites. They scatter petals of bright gold chrysanthemums known as flores de los muertos, or “flowers of the dead,” and lay flowers of all colors in every available space. They scatter pine needles and pine wreaths, symbols of tranquility and peace. They paint a whitewash of limestone chalk on grave mounds or brush fresh paint onto wooden tombs and crosses. They wave incense burners, and the smoke sends up love and blessings to mingle with the spirits. Candles flicker in the midst of some wreaths, while small glasses of booze nestle in others. “This means he enjoyed a drink now and then in his life,” Cesar says. “So they’re giving him a drink to enjoy in death.”

“This means he enjoyed a drink now and then in his life,” Cesar says. “So they’re giving him a drink to enjoy in death.”

One friendly family invites us to watch them decorate the resting place of the family patriarch. His widow smiles with pride, arranging flowers while her children and grandchildren surround her, teasing and pointing and laughing at each other over idiosyncrasies only they can see. Perhaps this daughter is shy of strangers, or that wife is a perfectionist about her flower arrangement, or this husband is a show-off. The young children giggle and whisper and tug at each other near their indulgent grandma.

The departed patriarch’s widow smiles with pride, arranging flowers while her children and grandchildren surround her.

Small florifundia trees dangle white trumpets and poinsettia trees burst into red stars between the graves. “These represent life coming from death, that death leads to new life,” Cesar says. “We go back to the earth, and from the earth new life grows.”

“These represent life coming from death, that death leads to new life,” Cesar says of the florifundia and poinsettia trees.

Two main paths form a cross through the middle of the graveyard, and on one side of that cross a hill of mausoleums rises, row upon row. They’re brightly colored, and some sport miniature columns, fancy roofs, and architecture even nicer than the dull concrete-block homes outside the cemetery where actual people live. It looks like a crowded village of houses for little people, or playhouses where girls might hold tea parties.

Two main paths form a cross through the middle of the graveyard, and on one side of that cross the hill of mausoleums rises, row upon row.

Once a gravesite is cleaned, decorated, and blessed, families picnic with their dead. They break out soda, alcohol, and calabacera – which means squash, but refers to all of this holiday’s special foods. Most of the foods are fruits such as jocotes and ayotes (squash), plus the ever-present elotes, or cobs of corn.

Families picnic with their dead. They break out soda, alcohol, and calabacerawhich means squash, but refers to all of this holiday’s special foods..

Guatemala’s Mayan people have no problem stacking one family member’s bones atop another’s. Often a single grave contains the remains of several generations. Why not? They’re all family, and they take those ties seriously. “Besides,” Cesar says with a crooked smile, “You can see that space here is limited. Where else would they put them?”

Toddlers clutch pinwheels, which spin slowly in the faint exhalations of the spirits.

There’s not much wind yet, but there must usually be, because this is also the day for Sumpango’s Festival of Giant Kites, which will soon get underway on the soccer pitch next to the cemetery. Inside the cemetery, toddlers clutch pinwheels, which spin slowly in the faint exhalations of the spirits. A few older children are flying small kites: brilliant homemade circles of colored tissue paper, or cheap plastic triangles made in China. In the afternoon, many kids will seek a better breeze atop the roofs of the family tombs. “The kites are like letters to the spirits,” Cesar’s daughter Rocio says. “When they send them flying, it’s like the wind is carrying their messages to those who have died.”

In the afternoon, many kids will seek a better breeze atop the roofs of the family tombs.

I’m all but skipping through this place of death, where exuberant life still bounces between heaven and earth. I may never again enter a cemetery without smiling and laughing. In short, hanging out with these Guatemalans might get me into trouble back home. But then I’ve always been the kind of girl who laughs at a funeral…

(Next weekend: Sumpango’s Festival of Giant Kites…)

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