Death where I come from is cold, sterile and colourless. It’s not even daunting black, but a solid dull grey. Death scares us because we can’t control it. It keeps its own schedule, disregarding our needs, feelings and conveniences. In the worst case Death is devastating; at best it’s uncomfortable. That’s Death in the First World, where the living are still waiting for an app to be invented on how to deal with it.
Not in Central America. Here Death is High Definition Full Colour. It’s noisy, fragrant and very much alive. Death is bright orange against sky-blue. Death is Mariachi music and delicious food. Death is being together, sharing and remembering. Death is a part of Life and nobody around these parts is silly enough to forget so.
The multisensory experience of Death accumulates on November 1, All Saints Day, and bursts out into a circus of colours, smells and flavours. The streets leading to the cemeteries are lined up with stands selling sweets, toys, souvenirs and pizza. Women sell flowers, pine needles and wreaths made of colourful paper flowers dipped in wax. At the entrance of the cemetery a dozen of men are offering their surfaces, armed with buckets and ladders. Do you want me to clean your tomb? Maybe a fresh layer of paint? For just a few Quetzalitos your grandfather’s eternal resting place is as good as new.
All Saints Day is not a sombre day of mourning. It’s a family outing, a reencounter with those on the other side. Graves, tombs or burial vaults are being cleaned and decorated before the family sits down for a meal, often the favourite food or drink of the deceased. Children run around traditionally playing with kites and nobody cares that they climb on tombs or stumble over graves.
There is social and racial hierarchy in Death too. Antigua Guatemala has a gorgeous cemetery, completely white in ancient colonial style. The paths and gardens are well maintained, the luscious tombs of the rich and simple burial vaults of the rest of the people all freshly painted an eye blinding white that makes the multi-coloured wreaths and flowers stand out even more.
You know you’re at an indigenous or at least mixed cemetery when the tombs are of simpler design but making up for it with vivid colours. There are no tombs, not even vaults for the poorest of the poor. They are laid to rest under a mound of dirt, a cross at the head with the deceased’s name.
This year I was thrilled to visit the cemetery of Sumpango. The area with the simplest graves was the best visited and by far the most impressive. Colours so bright and numerous, there can’t be names for them all. Mariachis played mournful ballads in the shadow of a tree right in the middle of the graves. Hundreds of Maya men and women in their most beautiful outfits lovingly covered the mounds of dirt with pine needles and marigolds, traditionally the flowers that with their bright colour and pungent fragrance guide the spirits along their visit this day. The air was dense with the smoke of burned incense. A scruffy dog scavenging for leftovers, lured by the smell of food everywhere. Babies comfortably dozing off on their mamas’ backs undisturbed by the heat, noise and presence of the living dead. What a fantastic, delicious sensory overload.
Oh, and then, of course, the gigantic kites! Nothing is more spectacular than the kites in Sumpango or Santiago. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger every year, some over 35 meters in diameter! And not just one, but dozens of them, dangerously swaggering against bamboo poles. And yes, sometimes they do tip over.
Thousands of people gather at the field near the town of Sumpango for this yearly festival, thousands more trying to make a little money selling ice cream, cold beers, yarn for kite flying or renting out bathrooms. Nobody with a few coins in his or her pocket will go hungry today.
Kites of all kinds and sizes are up in the air. Simmering heat, but smiling faces everywhere. And colour. If there is a paradise for colours, then this is it.
Day of the Dead is my very favourite holiday.