Día de los Muertos: A Celebration of Life in Guatemala

text and photos by Kerstin Sabene.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect as we headed out to visit the cemetery in Sumpango on Día de los Muertos. Nov. 1 and 2 is a sacred time in Guatemala when families throughout the country gather at cemeteries to honor their loved ones. As I would soon discover, the ritual is as touching as it is fascinating. On the road from La Antigua Guatemala, we passed numerous pickup trucks spilling over with people, their gigantic straw baskets filled with fresh flowers and colorful fruit.

The cemetery at Sumpango is quite expansive, containing every kind of grave from elaborately decorated mausoleums to simple, in-ground burial plots. Family members of the departed show up with brooms, ladders, paint and machetes to clear away weeds from the gravesites, which are then adorned with beautiful flowers and wreaths—coronas—to show thanks to their loved ones.

decorating-with-flor-de-muertoAs I began my stroll through the cemetery, feeling somewhat like an intruder, a sense of calm suddenly came over me. The air was full of quiet conversation as families lovingly set about cleaning and tending to gravesites in what was to be a day of celebration and recognition. I watched with fascination as they stenciled an image, such as a heart, on top of their loved one’s grave, and meticulously filled in the outline with sempa, a beautiful orange marigold.

It occurred to me at that moment that there was nothing funereal about this day. The cemetery was full of life and buzzing with social activity. I loved the scent of copal, pre-Columbian incense made from pine resin, wafting through the air. Families also brought baskets of festive food, including a special salad called fiambre, which was shared and consumed throughout the day.

I finally summoned the courage to speak to some of the people. I began by asking whose grave they were decorating. One man told me it was his mother’s gravesite. She had died less than a year ago, he recounted, as he painstakingly laid fragrant pine needles and fresh chrysanthemums on her tomb. Nearby, a mother with her two young sons decorated her husband’s gravesite. Sadly, she had been widowed much too early but said she was certain that her husband’s spirit was present and watching over them.

Eventually, many of these gentle and kindhearted people allowed me to take their photograph … and it finally struck me what a privilege it was to be there with them on this very special day.

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