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El Día de los Muertos

This week I am in La Paz, Bolivia and my visit has coincided with the holidays of Todos Santos (All Saints Day) and El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). These traditional Catholic holidays have been adopted and adapted here in Bolivia to include traditional beliefs as well. On the days leading up to these holidays people have been preparing for the visits of their relatives who have died. The traditional belief is that the souls of deceased family members come to visit from noon on November 1 and return to the realm of the dead at the same time on November 2.

Buying breads and cookies in prepartion for the holiday

On November 1, Todos Santos, many families prepare tables with pictures of their loved ones, favorite foods and drinks, and other special objects in their homes for the deceased to enjoy when they come to visit. On November 2, El Día de los Muertos, many families go to the graves of their relatives. While visiting they clean the graves, leave food and drink, offer music and prayers, and even share a meal together at the graveside.

A table set up with sweets, fruits, flowers, and other treats

Today is El Día de los Muertos and this morning Sarah and I visited the biggest cemetery here in La Paz. There were so many people in the neighborhood and a market had sprung up around the cemetery. As we entered the cemetery I could sense the meaning and importance of this day for the Bolivian people.

Market outside the cemetery

As we walked through the pathways lined with tombs, my heart was heavy. The tombs were stacked on top of each other, six high on both sides. Some of the tombs were very well looked after while others have not seen visitors for many years. People were everywhere arranging flowers, cleaning the tombs, and leaving presents for their deceased relatives. In the tombs of older people family members left small bottles of soft drinks or alcohol, cigarettes, cookies and breads. In the tombs of children and babies there were bottles, toys, and candies.

The tomb of an adult (above) and a child (below) with gifts from their families

As we walked through the cemetery I had many different emotions. On the one hand it was sad to see people grieving and missing their loved ones. At some of the tombs the people were praying or even singing together, some lovingly touching the tomb as though it were the face or hand of their relative. On the other hand it seemed like a party. There were drums and pipes playing – one family was cheerfully singing happy birthday to their deceased relative. Some families had brought so many gifts for their relatives they were trying to figure out what to do with all the gifts, as they would not fit in the small tombs. Some people were weeping while others were laughing together. I felt the same way, remembering loved ones who have died – how I miss them but remember them fondly and with joy. There was something so sweet and beautiful about this day as the community remembers those who have gone before. 

A family at the tomb of their relative

Flowers for a loved one

Posted November 2, 2012


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