People have always been fascinated with hidden crypts and how cultures bury and honor their dead. As many begin to decorate cemeteries in Guatemala in preparation for All Saint’s Day (Nov. 1) and the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), we reflect on our deceased loved ones. The cemetery in La Antigua Guatemala was not founded until 1834 at San Lazaro — previously used as a lepers’ colony. It is not common knowledge that everyone was buried in crypts in their churches in colonial times.
When the Spanish came to Guatemala in 1524 they brought their traditions with them. Villages (pueblos) were formed after the 1540s with a Catholic church in the center of the plaza. All the churches had crypts for burials. While crypts are found in excavations in Antigua’s churches, we know very little about them.
The deceased were buried under a dirt floor inside the crypt with lime and, after some time, the bones were moved into an ossuary in the same crypt. Coffins were not common, and it was very rare to have a tombstone. Crypts were not visited by the living.
The Cathedral of San José has some of the few crypts visitors may visit, including one under the King’s Chapel that is currently used by Maya spiritual guides for ceremonies. Under the main altar, the remains of the Conqueror Pedro de Alvarado and family, Bishop Francisco Marroquín and the historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo were believed to have been buried. The remains were excavated in 1943 and put in a box in the local courthouse.
When our team from CNPAG (Consejo Nacional Parala Protección de La Antigua Guatemala) met with the gentlemen in charge of that project in 1980, they mentioned that the remains had been tampered with and the bones had been lost. Our team put a cap on digging up human remains at that time. Antigua’s cemetery will not take human remains without a death certificate.
In reviving the restoration work at the Capilla del Socorro at the cathedral (thank you Patronato for recently cleaning it, taking down the 35-year-old, barbed-wire fence and putting up a new one), we realized how little we know about the crypts at all. In explaining to Dr. Alberto Garín (curator of the Casa Popenoe/Universidad Francisco Marroquín) the works we had carried out there in 1980 with the CNPAG, I showed him the main crypt of importance where we found the human remains sacked – dumped in front of the crypt.
We had put them back it at that time and closed the niche. I explained to him – just a year ago – how we were sure the remains belonged to a bishop or archbishop due to the importance of the location. With that, Dr. Garín said, “Oh, no…whoever paid for the crypt is surely buried there. That was the tradition in Spain.” So – a “new” subject for historians to work on as we realize how little we know.
The most beautiful crypt is found at the Santo Domingo Church with its exquisite mural painting from 1636 discovered in 1996. While Lic. Juan José Falla compiled a list of wills with the names of those who requested to be buried in the church, we were not able to identify the few remains that have been found.
A common oral tradition has it that there are “tunnels” under Antigua that connect the monasteries and convents with all of the stories that can evolve out of that! In the 1980s, with the help of archaeologist William R. Swezey (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica), we hunted and hunted for tunnels but—sorry, folks—found none. The crypts may look like tunnels when you first come across them, as they are quite often full of dirt and rubble from centuries of neglect.
Revue article: GUATEMALA INSIGHT
by Elizabeth Bell, author/historian. AntiguaTours.net