Yesterday was November 2nd, but more importantly, in Latin America, yesterday was the Day of the Dead, Dia de Los Muertos. I suppose some might consider it shame that I’ve now celebrated Dia de los Muerto in El Salvador before celebrating it in Mexico, but as I often feel, I’ve never been one for doing things in the right order.
Luckily, I had the ability to accompany Nelson and his family for their celebration. The day started with waking up around 6am to be at his family’s house around 7am. We had some coffee and sweet bread then made our way to the cemetery, the idea being to get there with Nelson’s grandmother, who has difficulty walking, before the huge crowds arrive. Once we arrived at the cemetery, we walked amongst the tombs and graves with young boys approaching you offering to repaint or clean the gravesite we were headed to. After walking about halfway into the cemetery, we reached the site where much of Nelson’s family is buried.
I’ve said it before and I will confidentially say it again, cemeteries in Latin America are much more beautiful than those in the United States. The style of graves is very different and every family is given free reign to do what they wish on their plot of land. Most build cement structures that resemble churches and then paint them vibrant and vivid colors. Cemeteries do not seem like glum, tragic places, but rather a location to celebrate the lives of those who have passed.
An element that took me off guard was the noticeable class differences in the graves themselves. Wealthier Salvadorians build almost cathedrals, while the poorer people put up a simple cross if they can afford it. Side by side to these giant monuments are small plots of land with a humble cross.
Even the matter of the land where your family members are buried reveals class structure. Consider the fact that citizens rent the ground family members are buried on for a time. I saw some tombs marked with the years 2012, 2013 and 2015. At first, I was confused, but Nelson’s aunt explained to me that future years marked the end of the family’s deed on the land. Once that year is reached, the bones are dug up and placed into a large cement structure, called the “huesera.” Other families, like Nelson’s, purchased the land their family is buried on and do not have to worry about their deed running out.
Once we arrived at the tomb for Nelson’s family, his aunts ordained the tomb with garlands of colorful, fake flowers. Why fake flowers? I asked that question too. Apparently, due to outbreaks of dengue fever, leaving open containers of water in the cemetery is now prohibited. While fresh flowers are still allowed, the intense heat kills them quickly, so fake flowers have become the preferred means of paying respects.
After our initial visit and a round of prayers (Hail Mary, Our Father, Glory Be), we returned to the house of Nelson’s grandparents had a larger breakfast to only return to the cemetery for a later morning mass. On our return trip, the streets were packed. It seemed as though everyone from Suchitoto made the trek. Nelson also told me that many people from San Salvador have family buried in Suchitoto and thus journey to the cemetery here every Dia de los Muertos. Outside the cemetery, there were vendors selling fake flowers, food, drinks and even desserts.
Mass itself was said just a little past the main gates and the priest reiterated the larger points of the holiday in his Homily. Mainly he reiterated that death should not be viewed strictly as a tragedy. That death, alongside birth, it is the only guarantee promised to us in our existence. Personally, I prefer that view of death. This past year especially, for whatever reason, I’ve pondered that exact same thing. Why must we fear the things we can’t control? Wouldn’t it make more sense to embrace the few things we do know for sure? Then again, humanity’s never made much sense to me.
Following mass, Nelson’s family led us around cemetery and I ran into several of the friends I’ve made while being here. Running into friends in a graveyard, that’s definitely a new one. On the way out, Nelson’s cousin, Hugo, bought us all ‘minutas’ or snowcones.
One the drive back to the house, I thought about seeing Latino families at San Fernando Mission cemetery back home, hanging out with their cooler and making a day of it. When I was little and we’d visit my grandpa, I thought this was hugely disrespectful. They were treating the cemetery like a park. After this experience, and a few others in Mexico, it’s really not insulting to me at all anymore. Death hits us all differently and effects us deeply. I don’t begrudge anyone their mourning process, for all I know, their way is much more healing than my own.