El Dia de Los Muertos

In Paraguay, November 2 was El Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”, a day where families remember their deceased. Despite it’s name, it focuses on celebrating rather than mourning the lives of one’s ancestors and can be a bit of a party in some communities. Families hang out at the cemetery for hours or all day, handing out candy, lighting candles, saying prayers, laying fresh scarfs over the crosses at the headstone, telling jokes, laughing. In the days leading up to the event, grave sites were cleaned of trash and weeds, several tombs were freshened up with a new coat of paint. Even the outhouse looked spiffy (outhouse in a graveyard? yup- people spend a lot of time here). In my community, families visit their ancestors every Monday morning. Family is everything.

Size and location of a grave is an indicator of wealth. The wealthiest have large tombs above ground, often accommodating many bodies or entire families, while the poorest bury their dead in the earth with just a simple headstone to mark the grave.

While talking to families at the cemetery this day, I asked many questions about the tradition and also explained that there is no equivalent in the U.S.  Sure, we have Memorial Day for veterans but there is no day formally set aside to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors (one of the teenagers asked me if Halloween counted; um, no.) This has prompted me to consider adopting a new tradition for myself when I get back to the States to remember and honor my own ancestors regularly, whether through a visit to their graves or a ritual of some kind. Afterall, they have all contributed in myriad ways to this life I am currently living. The idea seems fitting and right, especially as this year’s Day of the Dead celebration fell on the one year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, the last of my grandparents to leave this world.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground, to the more extravagant tombs built to hold entire families.

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground (top right), to the more extravagant tombs built to hold partial or entire families (orange  and green building). Note the outhouse stage left.

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