Cemeteries, Ghosts, and the Dead Today

It is all hallows eve in Utah.  It means many things.  For the young and the young at heart, it means dressing up in costumes that may be frightening or may represent something they venerate.  Firemen and witches, Ballerinas and batmen will fill the streets tonight, parties will abound and there will be shenanigans designed to frighten.  Little consideration is given to historical roots of holding vigil on this night – the belief that the spirits of the dead arise and roam the streets.

Anterior to the hoop-la that has become ‘Halloween’ however, is a time to consider the dead and our relationships to them.

A Grave Stone in Utah (Teresa Wilson)

A few days prior, a party was held in our local cemetery.  There were doughnuts and drinks, dipping fresh sweets into hot chocolate while people paid respects to their dead and decorated the graves.

The people clustered in knots, family circles around stones that were laid over the graves. Music thumped out a rhythm.  This universal, this evening force that lays low the greatest and the least made my heart turn to Cusco to wonder how the dead are remembered and how they are buried.

I found the words of Marco Simola who tell us, “In South America, when a person dies they are buried in a casket for ten years, before being dug up and cremated, and the ashes are placed in a niche in a wall of the cemetery. For the wealthy, the ashes are placed in little stand-alone marble houses that are large enough to accommodate the entire family. The wall niches at Almudena are interesting little dioramas of the deceased persons’ lives. Inside framed glass enclosures are symbols of the lives that the people led: dinner tables with large feasts, large beer and pisco bottles, automobiles, flowers, dolls, photos, religious statuettes, and so forth, with each two-foot by one-and-a-half-foot space representing a life.”

Niches in the Almudena Cemetery
Niches in the Almudena Cemetery

Dr. David Knowlton, anthropologist, assures me that the world of Cusco has changed.  “Increasingly, there are cemetery gardens, much like those in European countries appearing in Cusco.” People are buried there with crosses or other markers to show their place in the earth.

In Utah, people are buried and a ‘headstone’ is placed on the grave, marking the spot.  They are personalized, memorializing the memory of the deceased.

Remembrance is evident in the traditions of Cusco, where people bring their food to share with the departed family.  Games and music are played.  The ties that created bonds of family are strengthened, as living and dead meet in memory during dia de todo santos.  They symbolic breaking of bread together, the ideas that sharing food defines relationships are strong in this tradition.

I turned again to the words of Marco as he explained, “South of the equator, early November is a time of returning spring rains, the re-flowering of the earth and the anticipation of the harvest season. As such, the start of the very important planting season is celebrated and shared with ancestors… November 1st in Cuzco it is known as Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and celebrated with food such as lechon, sugar cane, chicha and tantawawa breads. November 2nd is considered the Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) and is honored with visits to cemeteries.

20161027_171116The memory of the dead has a resonance with everyone, however it is particularly strong in Cusco, with roots extending back before the empire of the Inca was established.  Funerary bundles were common and mummification was an established art.

When the Spaniards arrived, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala described and illustrated the festivals of November .  “The deceased were removed from their crypts, adorned with clothing and feathers, given food – through burnt offerings- and drink and carried, dancing and walking through the streets and plazas, then laid to rest with various offerings”

Tonight I will sit near my door, anticipating the ringing of the bell as the little witches and ballerinas, the firemen and the Batmen come calling.  They not only represent the spirits of the past, the people who have passed from life to death, but hold within them the future, just as death does.


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