Walking uphill from the house to the cemetery we become part of a centrifugal force in which groups of families large and small join together from branching streets, magnetised toward the town cemetery on foot. Men, women and children fill the streets, their arms spilling over with tangerine and umber tipped flor de muertos, the flower of the dead and what we know more commonly to be marigolds. They bring handfuls of thin candles and carry simply sculpted clay copal burners with red-hot coals. We pass by street vendors selling bellas (votive candles) and small packets of the treasured copal incense pellets. Bundles of handmade candles in sunny orange and white hang en mass by their long, uncut wicks. On the ground, great big plastic buckets hold bunches of fresh flowers, the colour of warmth and sun, a colour that would seep into ones pores, warming the soul and healing all ills. You see i have long since dreamed of being a part of these hallowed celebrations and tonight my opportunity has arrived, only it is even more momentous to be here with Graciela and her family than elsewhere observing from a distance. Welcome The Day of the Dead
We arrive at the entrance to the cemetery with Graciela and Telma at 8pm and are met by throngs of locals chatting, laughing and making their way around the gravesites in small factions. A marimba band is plugged into an enormous set of speakers and their music fills the night air, children run over and around gravesites with happy abandon- the mood is jovial.
The day has been spent tenderly reviving each gravesite. Family members lovingly repaint niches and cement crosses in bright colours and turn fresh mounds of soil, caring for each precious rectangle of earth as though their loved ones had passed only yesterday. As irony would have it we stopped to take in the site of an elderly woman who had passed only fifteen days ago and another where a father and his very young son lay beside each other, their deaths only months apart. I was interested to find that we would stop at the gravesites of complete strangers as well, which was something everyone else seemed to be doing too. This was a time to honour all of the dead and not simply ones own. Each mound of soil is carpeted with a glossy layer of fresh pine needles, deep green in colour and more is tossed down throughout the night. Leafy wreaths punctuated with brilliant flowers hang from crosses that bear the names of loved ones. Chris being the tallest in this cemetery and likely in San Juan too, helps a little local woman to hang a wreath from a third tier grave.
We weave our way through a maze of crosses and candles, stopping with the family (now joined by a large number of Diego’s relatives) to pay respect to an endless list of deceased grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, generations of deeply loved relatives being honoured here and invited back on this sacred night of the dead. Slowly we are making our way to the top end of the cemetery to the stacked concrete gravesites. On our way we pass a mariachi band that has gathered at one of the graves surrounded by family and friends. We enter into a lane no wider than a meter and tightly packed with locals. It is built up four or five levels high on either side with stacked concrete recesses, the one at our feet belongs to Graciela’s daughter who died at fourteen years old.
She has prepared buckets of fresh blooms, flor de muertos in piercing shades of orange and red and white calla lilies which now adorn the freshly repainted niche. Glass votives throw off a warm glow in the shadows and little orange candles are carefully stuck down and lit by Graciela. She takes the clay copal burner from Chris who has been carrying it and drops a few more opaque pellets of copal onto the blistering hot coals. Heavily scented smoke instantly bellows out surrounding us in a cloud of sweet perfume, I inhale its aroma feeling that i cannot get enough of it. She swings the burner back and forth leaving trails of white smoke which hang in the cold night air before setting it down alongside the candles and flowers. So compelling is this private ritual for a loved one who is no longer, Chris and i silently observe her prayers and blessings from behind, blessed to be included in this never-to-be-repeated slice in time.
Time marches on, the cold night air sets into the cemetery as Todos Santos (All Saints day) gives way to El Dia de los Muertos. Tonight has brought a deeper level of understanding not only for our family but for the time-honoured tradition of El Dia de los Muertos, celebrating the lives of those who have passed and cherishing the memories they leave behind. The cemetery is alive with love and happiness. We depart at 11pm, returning again at 4:40am the following day and 4pm one last time.
Our time with this family has come to a close and we are deeply sad to say our goodbyes. Graciela walked us to our chicken bus and, in a flurry of activity we were gone from their lives. I waved back at her from the bus window with tears in my eyes and off we drove up, up and away from Lago Atitlan. I will never forget her smile or Diego’s enthusiastic ¨waaaaaaaaaaaaooooooow¨ in English with a very ‘wow’ head roll to boot. The smell of wood smoke and the rhythmic clap-clapping of hands shaping tortillas will forever take me back to this magical time in our lives and this wonderful family who gave so much to us. For a moment we weren’t the alien foreigners looking in on life but a part of life with a Mayan family in Guatemala. I would do it again in a heartbeat but i fear we may not be so lucky next time.
For the full San Juan la Laguna album: