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Season of the Spirits….

31 October 2006

The following article isn’t meant to creep anyone out. It’s a description of a serious annual celebration in Mexico. Though it’s called a “celebration”, it’s not a fun celebration along the lines of Carnaval. It’s a highly ritualized tradition which reinforces the ties that bind generations together. Some of the practices may seem very strange to those of us who have completely differing views of death than most Mexicans. Try to keep an open mind as you read on.

The Day of the Dead is being celebrated by the people in Mexico. Nov 1 and Nov 2 are the days when Mexicans pay tribute to their relatives and friends who are no longer living. Traditions vary from region to region, but in general, it’s a time when the living make visits to the graves in honor of their dead family members. Some make altars in their homes and some take their elaborate altars directly to the panteons (cemeteries) . Arches are decorated with marigold pedals and ofrendas of homemade breads, candies (skull shaped), tamales, fruits, photographs of the dead, and calaveras (skeletons/skulls) etc. are displayed on makeshift altars under the arches. Candles or resin lamps are lit to guide the spirits along the path to the altar.

The first night is celebrated for the spirits of the dead children and the second night for the spirits of the departed adults. It is believed that once or twice a year, the spirits are allowed to travel back to their families for an evening of eating, singing and drinking. It is a religious and spiritual ritual that dates back to the pre-Hispanic era.

Poet laureate Octavio Paz wrote that the Mexican does not fear death but “chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”

In some parts of Mexico (Michoacan for instance), family members spend the whole night in the cemetery whereas in other regions, the rituals are practiced more privately in the home.

There is a town in the Yucatan called Pomuch which goes much further in their rituals. Pomuch is a Mayan town (7,800 pop.) which is about 7 miles outside the town of Tenabo in the state of Campeche. In this town and a few others through the area, Mayans exhume the bones of their loved-ones and ritualistically cleanse their bones with soft cloths or small brushes in preparation for the Day of the Dead celebration. It is not macabe or ghoulish. Family members carry out the tasks with love and respect.

Here is The tale of the Pomuch Mayan ritual as reported by Greg Brosnan (Reuters)

POMUCH, Mexico (Reuters) – Eighty-three-year-old Maya Indian Cenorio Colli gazed lovingly at his wife’s long brown hair and recalled how carefully she combed it when she was still alive.
Then he went back to cleaning her skull and every bone she left behind.
Grieving Maya Indians in a sweltering village deep in the limestone flatlands of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula painstakingly cleaned the remains of their late loved ones on Monday during a unique annual family reunion with the dead.

In a tradition dating back centuries, families in Pomuch exhume their dead after three years in the grave and transfer their dried bones and skulls — often with hair attached — to wooden crates on permanent display in open funeral niches.

Every subsequent year in a two-day ritual preceding the November 1 and November 2 Day of the Dead festival, families gather at the brightly painted tombs to replace the boxes’ embroidered cloth linings and give the remains themselves a spruce up.

The festival brings back floods of painful memories for mourning kin struggling with the loss of life companions.

“I was talking to her,” Colli, a widower of nine years, recalled as he lifted his dead wife Concepcion’s brittle pelvis from a large pile of bones and dusted it off with a cloth. “She lowered her head and that was it.”

But the retired farm hand said he took solace from knowing she was at peace. “I feel happy because she died happy.”


According to Mayan beliefs, death is a stage in life in which the deceased evolve into higher, more spiritual beings. In Pomuch, the dead are believed to be “purified” during the first three years after their death. They are then exhumed and welcomed back as highly respected members of extended families in which past and present generations merge.

Old women in colourfully patterned traditional dresses chattered in the Mayan language on Monday as they fussed over the bones of long lost mothers and the skulls of babies who barely lived a day.

Marta Helena Chipool, 35, lovingly cleaned the remains of a mother-in-law she never met and the twin girls who died with her 40 years ago in childbirth.

“You go to the cemetery and you can see your dead sister, mother and father and talk to them,” said Lazaro Tuz, an anthropologist from Pomuch who has spent years documenting the ritual. “This keeps the family together.”

“The dead person is no longer dead because you can touch him,” he said.

“She is not dead to me, she lives in my heart,” Maria Euan, a 52-year-old woman with braids and bright cross-stich flowers spread across her white blouse, as she and her husband arranged her dead mother’s bone. “This is her party.”

The origins of the ritual, which is celebrated almost exclusively in Pomuch, are murky, and it is unclear whether the practice predates the Spanish conquest of Latin America. One theory suggests that villagers, faced with an overflowing cemetery, may have begun digging up their dead for sanitary reasons.

Some fear the tradition is dying out as Pomuch’s youth, increasingly hooked on video games, action films and racy reggaeton music, embrace modern culture.

According to village folklore, the spirit of a Pomuch native can become angry and wonder lost through the streets if proper care is not taken of his or her remains.

Martin de Porras cleaned his dead father’s thigh bone, still bearing the shiny metal prosthetic ball joint that made his last months after a road accident misery, and wondered whether his children would do the same for him.

“I can’t make them do it,” he said. “But if they don’t, I don’t know where I’m going to end up.”

Another link to a story about the Pomuch D.O.D. ritual : Mayans celebrate Day of the Dead

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