Preparations begin weeks in advance when
the mausoleums are painted and
the cemeteries are filled with beautiful flowers.
One of my favorite holidays in Guatemala in All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, when we also celebrate the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2). While people consider dying sad, and indeed it is when we bury our loved ones, there is a sense of joy and peace on this day.
Cultural historians have always been fascinated with how humankind has honored its deceased and the customs that have been treasured from generation to generation. Perhaps since we combine both days in one in Guatemala, we feel that our deceased loved ones are accompanied by the saints in the heavens.
On this national holiday, where all banks, schools and most businesses are closed, many visit the colorful cemeteries. Preparations begin weeks in advance when the mausoleums are painted and the cemeteries are filled with beautiful flowers. In many Maya communities, like Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, huge, 15-foot kites are prepared and flown. It takes a good-size crew to get them up in the air! It appears that the spirits are flying with the kites although the cultural meaning of these fabulous kites is much more complicated and begins with the preparation of the materials.
While reviewing Miguel Angel Monzon’s new publication, “Historia del Cementerio de Antigua,” I reflected on the history of burials in Antigua. We know that everyone was buried in crypts in Catholic churches throughout the time Santiago (today La Antigua Guatemala) was the capital (1543-1773).
We know that the cemetery in Antigua was founded in 1834 and that mausoleums and some burials underground have been carried out since then. But what about the time from 1773-1834? Protestants (evangelicos in Spanish) did not arrive in Guatemala until 1871, so no registry there. There are a few human remains buried in front of the abandoned churches in Antigua but not the 6,000 people who may have stayed behind in the move to Guatemala City.
In visiting the cemetery in Antigua, there is a sense of peace. It is important for many Guatemalans to visit their deceased loved ones. In English, the tradition seems not to be that important. In Spanish, there is a fine line between visiting the grave and considering that one is visiting the person/spirit.