Cemeteries in Guatemala
by Elizabeth Bell, author/historian.
Guatemala honors all of the dead on All Saint’s Day (Nov. 1)
and holds services on the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2)
How cultures honor and bury their dead has been of great intrigue for millennia. While the ancient Maya buried their deceased under their houses or temples, the Spanish brought other traditions with them to Guatemala in 1524.
A cathedral was erected in the second capital of Santiago de Guatemala (present day La Antigua Guatemala) in the late 1520s and churches were built in the central parks of towns founded mostly after the 1540s. Everyone was buried in their respective churches–yes, everyone (not just the rich and famous).
Burial vaults—crypts—are found under all colonial churches and, to this date, contain hundreds, if not thousands, of human remains. Many thought these crypts were tunnels that connected a convent to, perhaps, a monastery (and the “stories” tied to those) but, in fact are all crypts.
Nuns were buried in their convents, monks in their monasteries and the faithful in their church. The bodies were buried underground with lime, and after a few years the bones were moved in the same crypt to the ossuary. These were not open to the public.
Special ceremonies for deceased royalty included túmulos or piras erected in the cathedral and churches in Santiago de Guatemala. These were altar-like structures created out of wood by the finest artists of the day to honor royalty and archbishops.
Candles were important, records note that one celebration used 400 pounds of wax. It usually took nine months to learn of the death of a Spanish monarch in Guatemala, and preparations took another few months to design these special notices that included poetry and, of course, music.
Epidemics throughout the 19th century and liberal changes in the 1870s brought revisions to burial traditions in Guatemala. One of the oldest cemeteries in Guatemala is in Quetzaltenango and dates back to 1840.
The first cemetery in Guatemala City (Cementerio del Sagrario) was located behind the cathedral in 1770 and moved to Camposanto Los Remedios in 1779 (now Parque Enrique Gómez Carillo). Its third location was near Hospital San Juan de Dios (1833). The current cemetery was founded by President Justo Rufino Barrios in 1878; its first burial dates from 1881. Guatemala’s finest artists also designed many of the mausoleums and tombstones.
We need to research the history of La Antigua’s cemetery more. We know the San Lázaro Church—completed in 1734—was an area for lepers in colonial times. When the capital was moved to present-day Guatemala City in 1773-74, this area was probably abandoned.
According to its current administrator, Señor Venancio García, the cemetery was founded in 1818. Today it houses more than 1,400 mausoleums, the oldest dating from 1828 for the Rivera family. The Cofiño family donated more property for its expansion over the years.
Today, when a loved one dies, a velorio or wake is held throughout the night for friends and family members to gather. This is followed by a religious service before interment in the cemetery. Guatemala honors all of the dead on All Saint’s Day (Nov. 1) and holds services on the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2). Families paint their mausoleums and decorate them with exquisite flowers for this important day, which is a national holiday.