Culture comes alive on day of dead

Man paints cross on family grave in preparation of All Souls` Day

Man repaints cross on his parents' grave outside of Humahuaca in preparation for All Souls' Day

Because Wessel and I had only one week and many miles to travel when we were in indigenous Northwest Argentina two years ago, I had plotted our trip out pretty carefully. Then, true to the wonders of travel, the event I hadn’t been aware of ended up being one of the most interesting and meaningful part of our trip — All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2.

Sugar baby heads for sale on local market

Sugar baby heads for sale at local market

A couple days before the Roman Catholic day of remembrance for loved ones who have passed away, we started seeing ceremonial supplies on sale at the many outdoor markets. These included bouquets of cut flowers and also plastic coronas — rings of brightly colored flowers. (I still have the two I brought home with me.) Also popular at the market were ghoulish sweets, including sugar skulls, crosses, and baby heads. And there were carts of “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead, sweet bread baked in various shapes, including crosses and llamas.

We learned through various innkeepers we stayed with that this was a very special time, marked by offerings to the gods and festivities, including town parades. As the day approached, we strategized a new activity — cemetery hopping in our rental car.

Graves colorfully decorated in Abra Pampa, Argentina

Colorfully decorated graves in Abra Pampa

By the end of All Souls’ Day we had visited seven cemeteries, from Yavi, the small town we woke up in, to Purmamarca, which is flanked by the stunning Cerro de los Siete Colores, or Hill of Seven Colors. Each town we passed had cemeteries of varying sizes. For at least a mile away from each one we could see people walking toward them, carrying flowers and gifts. (Most people in this region do not own cars.)

Man decorate large cross on the La Quiaca cemetery

Locals add wreathes to a large cross at La Quiaca cemetery

We stayed the longest at La Quiaca cemetery, near the Bolivian border and one of the liveliest. It was easy to locate — we followed the crowds to the main gate, flanked by ice cream and empanada vendors. A 10 a.m. Mass was wrapping up around noon, and a second two-hour Mass was scheduled for 4 p.m. Families and friends clustered around gravesites bursting with color from flowers real and fake. People lined up at water hoses to fill vases. They also lined up at grain-alcohol vendors to fill their cups.

All around the cemetery, hundreds of people swept, wept, drank, prayed, and sometimes sang. We were very grateful that none of them paid much mind to us, as we were the only outsiders there. We took photos while holding our cameras at our hips, not wanting to show disrespect. We felt a profound gratitude to have an opportunity to share in this wonderful culture that honors the deceased not only with the sorrow of death but with the celebration of life.

For more photos, here’s a link to the Boston Globe slideshow of Wessel’s photos. 

 

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3 Responses to “Culture comes alive on day of dead”

  1. boldlygosolo Says:

    Yum, sugar baby heads! I’m going to look for some of those here in my neighborhood…!!! ;-)

  2. Karen Says:

    We leave for Oaxaca tomorrow – post Day of the Dead – but we were there for it 9 years ago. I remember all the marigolds, sand paintings and arrangements of tiny skeletons in tableaux relating to what the deceased did while alive (drinking, playing cards, riding a horse, working as a barber – etc.) Most of all I remember how sincere people were in their belief that their relatives would be coming back that night and they would talk with them again. How wonderful to have a portal to the afterlife – for one night every year. I envied them!

  3. karel Says:

    True or not. It must be special to be part of such believe. To feel ties with former generations. Unfortunately I don’t have . Í am a heir of Enlightenment. I love cell-phone and internet. But is this all there is.
    I’m not sure

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