“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” ~ Steve Jobs
Last year, just after dark on Saturday evening, November first, I find myself traipsing through the sprawling hilltop graveyard in Santiago Atitlán.
Normally, this would freak me out.
Thankfully, this is a special occasion. The place is lit with strings of large, clear light bulbs, and I am accompanied by a few hundred of my fellow living souls, here to celebrate Día de los Santos (Saints’ Day).
This is quite different from the more famous kite festivals held on this day each year in Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango, outside Antigua. Here, the festivities take place all night, and there’s not a kite in sight.
In the days leading up to this sacred Saturday, the graveyard has been cleaned and the graves decorated. This one night each year, the bereaved hold vigil from dusk ’til dawn at their family burial site. The types of graves reflect the various socioeconomic levels, from unmarked mounds of dirt topped with fragrant pine needles and colorful flowers to big, concrete mausoleums with the deceased’s name prominently displayed.
On the slow hike uphill, dozens of vendors line the curb, selling candles, incense, fireworks, street food, ice cream and candy. Once we reach the entrance to the cemetery, there is a mass of people milling about, herds of families entering and exiting the grounds. Most are Tz’utujil Maya, who make up the vast majority of the population of Santiago Atitlán.
The celebration is subdued in some areas of the cemetery and lively in others. Some children frolic about, trying not to trip over the graves as they play tag. Parts of my stroll are tranquil, solemn, like walking meditation, a chance to take in the surroundings and contemplate life and death. Families sit among the graves of their lost mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, chatting or sharing a simple meal of churrasco, beans and tortillas.
I’ve come to appreciate Guatemala’s (and all Latin America’s) cultural customs around death. It is not a taboo topic, but rather a natural passage at the end of life. Unpleasant though it may be, the fact is that death can come at any time, at any age, after a long or short illness, due to violent crime or an inexplicably tragic accident. This fact should make every moment of life one to be grateful for.
It really is a miracle just to walk the earth.
The longer I live in Central America, the more clearly I see the culture around death in such stark contrast to North America’s deep-seated fear and shunning of death and its maniacal celebration of Halloween, with its typical emphasis on blood, gore and fear.
Halloween is kind of f*cked up. And I’m not even talking about the bizarre history of All Hallow’s Eve.
Of course, I went trick-or-treating as a kid. I would dress up and go door-to-door with a group of friends and ask for candy from mostly unknown neighbors in suburbia. In college and post-college, I would go to big, wild house parties involving a lot of alcohol and drugs and everyone in costume.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Halloween has gotten so much sluttier, bloodier and gorier over the years. Zombies are all the rage…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But there is something wrong with denying, avoiding and feeding our societal phobia of death.
This weekend, I am excited to create a traditional altar with my Mexican friend and neighbor. She is from Toluca, the town in Mexico with a huge Día de los Muertos community-wide celebration each year, featuring pan de muertos, music, dancing, drinking and plenty of time to hang out with the spirits. On the alter, we will place flowers, candles, incense, photos or drawings or names of our dearly departed family and friends, as well as some of their favorite foods and drinks.
We will practice yoga and meditation (which are the same) in honor and celebration of both life and death.
“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.” ~ Tecumseh
P.S. This animated short film brought tears to my eyes and really captures the spirit of the Mexican Day of the Dead in just three minutes. Enjoy!
Author: Michelle Margaret Fajkus
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Screenshot from video