Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ashes to Ashes

Last weekend I went to my first burial in Guatemala. 

As I was on my way out of the compound Sunday morning, Isabel and I were making small talk.  I told her I was going out for a walk to take some photos of the aldea.  She mentioned there was a funeral going on up the road for a 12 year old boy who died recently, but didn't know how he had died.  

When I ran into Ela on the street later that morning I asked her if she knew the story, and she said that the boy had eaten a golosina (sweet… usually something like gummy bears) and it got stuck in his stomach.  His stomach got distended and hard, and he had to have surgery.  The surgery didn’t go well, got infected, and he died.  She asked if I’d like to go to the burial that afternoon, and I said I would.

Around 1 p.m. we started walking up the road with a group of women.  The main procession had already left, so we took a shortcut up to the highway to meet them at the entrance to the cemetery.  It seemed like most of the community had turned out.  The casket was being carried by a handful of men, and surrounded by men walking ahead and behind it.  Behind all the men came the women (and some children), walking together, many with shawls over their head.  We slipped into the crowd of women and continued up the hill into the cemetery.  The mood was fairly quiet, without much socializing, but there were no wailing family members in sight (as I have seen in other funeral processions here).

Once there, people spread out.  Some took seats on top of burial mounds (whether of their own family or not, I don’t know).  Others found spots in the shade, and several dozen people crowded around the grave itself.  Some opportunists made their way through the ground toting coolers full of ice cream and popsicles for sale, and found a steady stream of customers.  Someone by the grave (I assume a pastor) stood up to give some words, but all but those closest to him were chatting to their neighbors.  It felt like a subdued picnic.

Ela turned to me and explained that “they say” when they dug the grave for the casket, the found the remains of someone else in that spot and pulled it out.  They don’t know who it was.  Ela confessed she wanted to get a look at what was left of the cranium, and laughed at herself. 

I moved closer to the grave as they lowered the casket into the ground.  Then a group of men immediately covered it over using hoes they had brought for the purpose, and women carried over several big jugs of water to throw on top as all the soil was replaced.  They worked the water into the soil to be able to form a solid mound shape out of what would otherwise have been dust, thanks to the dry season. 

With that, the crowd broke up and started to return home, to pick up their daily rhythm.  I never did get an idea of who the family members were.  On the way down the hill, Isabel and Ela chatted to one another comfortably about death.  They expressed the naturalness of death, and that what God wills happens, there’s nothing we can do.  God knows the time He will call each of us home, and we can only accept that.  It’s one of the only times I’ve heard my new family discuss God or religion.

What struck me most about the situation was how no one seemed particularly conflicted over the death.  Admittedly, I did not attend the funeral itself and I make no claim to know how the family itself felt or dealt with the situation.  When both Isabel and Ela told me of the situation, I expressed how tragic the circumstances were to me, how awful it would be to lose a 12 year old son.  They both agreed with me, but didn't seem terribly moved themselves. 

Perhaps it comes from the fact that in the U.S. it is very rare to lose a child, and we have an expectation that medicine can and should be able to fix most things.  Car accidents, heart attacks, and very occasionally violence result in sudden deaths in the U.S., but rarely would a digestive problem or a fairly routine surgery be viewed as life threatening.  Here, it seems that death from violence is almost common place (though no less tragic for the families affected).  Accidents on the road are also frequent, and more likely to be fatal than in the U.S. because the use of seat-belts is rare (even when they are present), landslides are common, drunkenness a factor, and vehicle maintenance laughable.  I'm not saying Guatemalans are callous, but they may develop a culture of acceptance as a coping mechanism.

Like so many things, this probably comes down to expectations.  In the U.S. many of us more or less expect that we and everyone in our family will make it to old age, and hope we will do it gracefully.  When we or someone we know loses someone in a way that feels out of order -- whether from illness, accidents, or violence -- we are shocked.  We feel cheated, we feel wronged by life.  We tell ourselves and each other, "This isn't how it's supposed to happen."  

Guatemalans not directly affected by a death seem much more likely to react by saying, "Well, these things happen."

I didn’t feel comfortable bringing around my camera during a burial (little did I know there would be vendors working the crowd!) but I have some shots of the local cemetery and the Sumpango cemetery from previous visits.    

Decorations during Day of the Dead: The graves of a sibling of Benancio that never made it to adulthood, and a baby of Cata that didn't make it.  

The view down the valley from the cemetery.  There are no markers on the graves; you just have to know under which mounds your own family members are buried.  Perhaps this is why they accidentally dug up someone else's grave in preparing for the funeral this weekend.

In the larger (and wealthier) Sumpango, the mounds had crosses marking their place, although often still did not always include a name.  (Photo credit: Sara Shapleigh)

More than half the cemetery in Sumpango was given over to brightly colored mausoleums that could hold up to a dozen family members.  Some had chapels stuck in the sides, and many had flowers or other decorations around.   The distinction between the burial styles is a matter of financial means, not of religion.  (Photo credit: Sara Shapleigh)


  1. Please elaborate on "death by violence is commonplace."

  2. I certainly don't mean to scare my readers -- I feel very safe in my site. However, the murder rate in Guatemala is quite high:

    As a country, the murder rate is several times higher than the most dangerous U.S. cities. There is a significant gang presence in parts of the country, and people are kidnapped for ransom regularly. Sometimes they are kidnapped and their bodies are found later with no ransom having been demanded.

    This is all to say that murders appear in the news almost daily. Again, the village where I live is very calm. I and my neighbors generally do not feel directly threatened by such events, but it does affect the climate and perception of violence nationwide.

    The Peace Corps restricts our travel to avoid the most dangerous parts of the country. Usually, foreigners are not targeted specifically, and we are taught many precautions to make travelling less risky.