Mayan Days of the Dead

I wrote this in November of 2010 as part of the journal I kept in Momostenango. For some reason I never got around to posting it, so here it is now.

On Monday, November 1, my friend Anita and I went to Don Rigoberto’s house. Like many other Mayan traditionalists, Don Rigo doesn’t really think of the Day of the Dead as a Catholic holiday called “All Soul’s Day.” He thinks of it as an ancient Mayan ceremony.

Many anthropologists would agree with him. The elaborate ceremonies held at cemeteries throughout Mesoamerica clearly have nothing to do with Catholic tradition, but represent the survival of ancient rites dedicated to the ancestors. Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, in the late 1970s, noted that the Maya often visited cemeteries on days named Ajpu (Ahau) in the Sacred Calendar, and performed rituals honoring deceased family members. In Mayan tradition, Ahau or Ajpu is a day which is especially connected with the ancestors. I have noted the smoke of many offerings, much more than usual, when I passed through the Momostenango cemetery on 6 Ajpu. One interpretation of day-sign symbolism asserts that the day-sign Ahau was known as “Flower” (xochitl) to the Aztecs because it was symbolized by the marigold commonly used in rites during the Days of the Dead. 9 days are also connected with the ancestors; I have visited the Momostenango cemetery on 9 days, and it is clear that there is also a lot more ceremonial activity taking place on those days than at other times.

Once arrived at Don Rigo’s house, we began by stripping the needles from pine branches. Then we plucked the blossoms from bundles of marigold plants. All of this was to form a path, a clear road for the ancestors to follow when the silk veil between the worlds was lifted and the spirits attempted to find their way back home. Don Rigo’s children scattered the pine needles and marigolds in a colorful line from the street into the house, and then into the room that contained the family shrine. The doors were left open so that the spirits might enter. The altar was decorated with different kinds of food for the ancestors to eat. Another visitor arrived, and then we were all ushered into the shrine room for prayer. We lit tallow candles and made our requests to our own ancestors, along with offering our thanks. We smudged ourselves with the smoke from censers filled with frankincense.

Later, the three of us visitors went to the cemetery. The Momostenango cemetery is huge; I have seen villages that were smaller. The mausoleums look like houses, giving the impression that one is in a kind of “city of the dead.” The crypts are made up to look precisely like real houses, complete with gabled roofs, front doors, windows, and perhaps a bit of a garden. Sometimes the “windows” of these “houses” are little glass niches in which photographs of the deceased are often placed, along with perhaps a candle. All in all, it is intended to give the impression that one’s departed relatives are still all living together in the family home, even sitting next to a friendly candle and gazing out their window just as they did when they were alive. One can easily identify the mausoleums of traditionalist families. Somewhere near the “front door” may be found a small stone shrine, blackened by smoke, at which offerings are made to the ancestors
Today, the cemetery is packed with townspeople. Smoke rises everywhere. Countless graves are decorated with pine needles and marigolds. Elaborate flower arrangements grace the mausoleums, blazing with color. Musicians garbed in black and carrying brass-band instruments and drums circulate through the cemetery; for a small charge, they will play somber, out-of-tune music at the grave of a favorite ancestor. Children stand on top of the crypts and fly kites while families have picnics as they sit next to the graves.

And everywhere, there is worship. People raise their hands in prayer, eyes closed with religious fervor as they kneel in a spirit of passionate devotion by the tomb of a beloved ancestor. In Momostenango, the Day of the Dead is not just a fiesta, characterized by firecrackers, candy, and tequila. It is a genuine religious event.

It is a bit unnerving to Western eyes, the first time you see it: real ancestor worship. Our own attitude toward death is so different. In the United States, where I grew up, we avoid talking about death. We worship youth, and make every effort to avoid growing old. Our lives are prosperous and pleasant. But when we die, everyone will try to forget about us as soon as possible, so that they need not be reminded of their own mortality. Our children might write a twelve-step letter severing all connection with us and telling us what jerks we were – right after they take our money.

Among the Maya, it is different. Life is hard. Every day is a difficulty. But when you die, you will be worshiped for years to come. In that sense, our own “way of death” is the complete opposite of the Mayan world view.

In some Mayan languages, the term for the grammatical present tense is kame. This is the same as the common word for “death,” which is also kame. As Martin Prechtel used to say, Death is the Eternal Now. The Eternal Now is like an axis mundi or world center. Both the past, comprised of that which has been and gone, and the future, yet to come, are anchored to the central tree of the Eternal Now. Living, as we do, in the Eternal Now, our eloquent poetic words and our beautiful lives feed the past and thus create the blossoming of the future. If the Gods become drunk with our beauty, we heal the past and make it new. Thus is the future created. Death is the present moment, and death can only happen in the Eternal Now. It cannot happen at any other time. Death transforms the present into the past, giving birth to the future. If we live a life of true beauty and eloquence, our death will feed the soil of the present and thus allow us to participate fully in the creation of the future. Therefore we are not fully “cooked” in the glorious oven of human life until we die; death completes us.

This is the esoteric meaning of Cimi (K’iche’: Kame), the day-sign called Death. This is why Death, much against our own Western expectations, is one of the most positive day-signs of all.

What, then, did we do to honor the Eternal Now, when we were finished with our cemetery visit?

We went to the sacred hill of Paklom in the center of town and joined Don Rigo’s children in flying kites!