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Dancing with the Dead

Colorful cemeteries, with their turquoises and pinks, mauves and sky blues, play an integral part in the living fabric of contemporary Guatemalan society. It's not uncommon to see entire families visiting their deceased relatives on Sundays. But a visit to the cemetery need not be mournful, and they often bring a bottle of alcohol to share, occasionally tipping the bottle to the earth, so that their dead relatives also get their share. Incense is burned and shamans perform ancient rites alongside Catholic and evangelical clergy. The November 2 observance of the Day of the Dead gives family members their greatest chance to celebrate and honor their deceased relatives with music, dance, song, festivals and, yes, much drinking and merriment.

Celebrating the dead rather than mourning their passing is a Mayan tradition that reaches back to pre-Columbian times. The Popol Vuh or Mayan Bible as it's sometimes referred to, looks toward an active relationship with deceased friends and relatives. "Remember us after we have gone. Don't forget us," reads the Popul Vuh. "Conjure up our faces and our words. Our image will be as dew in the hearts of those who want to remember us." It is unknown who authored the Popol Vuh, which was translated into Spanish in the early 18th century by Father Francisco Ximénez, but the practices and myths of the sacred book of the Maya still make their way into the Day of the Dead celebrations across Guatemala.

The country's two most fascinating Day of the Dead celebrations take place in Santiago Sacatepéquez and Todos Santos Chuchumatán on November 1. In Santiago Sacatepéquez, a Cakchiquel town located 30 km (19 mi) from Antigua, villagers gather in the early morning hours and file through the narrow streets to the cemetery. Once there, they take part in what is one of Guatemala's most resplendent ceremonies, flying giant kites of up to 2 meters (6½ feet) in diameter to communicate with those who have passed away. The villagers tie messages to the kite tails to let the dead know how they are doing and to ask God for special favors. The colorful celebration is finished with a lunch feast of fiambre, a traditional dish of cold cuts, boiled eggs, vegetables, olives, and other delicacies. The so-called "drunken horse race" in the remote mountain village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, near Huehuetenango—the riders get plastered, not the horses—is not to everyone's taste, but is an integral part of that town's Day of the Dead celebration.

The color scheme of the cemeteries is more than just decorative: turquoise and green tombs signify that an adult member of the family was recently interred in the above-ground crypts, whites and yellows indicate the passing of an elderly family member, and pinks and blues are reserved for deceased children.

Just remember that although foreigners are welcome in the cemeteries, it's important to respect the traditions and dignity of those visiting deceased relatives—tread softly and leave your camera behind.

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