Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Grooming Graves to Welcome Back the Dead

Hallowmas, or All Saints Day, is such a convenient make-up day for Catholics. There are so many saints, some have been forgotten. November 1 represents a time to remember all of them in one powerful group prayer.

The following day, All Souls Day, is ideal for praying for all the departed, particularly those who escaped hell but were not quite good enough to have Saint Peter throw out the welcome mat – those poor souls stuck in limbo or purgatory.

For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, Catholicism is but a recent thin veneer topping centuries of ancient Mayan beliefs. We are in the heart of that land. November 1 is celebrated as Dia de los Inocentes, a time to communicate with all the small children your family might have lost. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

While a small number of Americans hold séances to try to entice loved ones back for a visit, most Americans shrink away from the thought of inviting ghosts back to be part of our lives. But here, families devote much time and energy to cleaning their ancestors’ graves in preparation for decorating them with items to entice the departed back to earth.

This past Sunday, we viewed some of these efforts outside a church that burned long ago. A band played spirited music outside the front of the ruins to entertain those hard at work and those lying underground.

Please excuse the quality of these photographs, but San Juan Chamula operates under its own set of laws. And one of these is you are not allowed to take photographs in its churches or close-ups of any people without permission, rarely extended by the city’s elders (more later). Violators will have cameras confiscated, or worse.

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Throughout San Juan’s valley, patches of marigolds are squeezed tightly amongst rows of corn. The marigolds will be harvested for the graves to help guide the dead to earth.

The sincerity of all the preparations is critical because one would not want the dead to feel inadequately welcomed, particularly because they can impact one’s prosperity throughout the coming year.

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