Last year for Day of the Dead I found it curious that in Ciudad del Carmen there wasn’t the giant celebration I had learned about in Spanish class. While there were the typical bread and sugar skulls at the local bakery, I didn’t see faces painted in skull makeup or extravagantly decorated altars dedicated to those that have passed. Living in Mexico, we are trying to soak up all of the local culture that we can, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed in the lack of celebration.
A few weeks ago, one of my friends mentioned she and her husband were going to a small town called Pomuch, outside of Campeche, for Day of the Dead. They were going to see the local Mayan descendants clean the bones of their deceased loved ones. I had heard of this ritual the year before, and I honestly thought it was bizarre and a little disturbing. Fast forward one year, and I couldn’t wait to join our friends to learn of an old, local tradition first hand.
We arrived to the small town of Pomuch Saturday morning, the official Day of the Dead. We weren’t quite sure where the cemetery was. It is a tiny town with some dirt roads and local bread bakeries dotting the streets. After swerving past a few bike taxis and stray dogs, we stopped and asked where the cemetery was located, drove around in circles, and eventually found the cemetery with locals dressed in their best pouring in and out of the gate.
I read about the ritual before going, to prepare myself for what I was going to witness. The blogs mainly said that the bones are cleaned on November 2nd, which wasn’t the case, at least for this year. Loved ones had been cleaning bones for the past week and finished early Saturday morning. Instead, what we found were the cleaned bones on display with flowers, candles, and new embroidered blankets. I have to say I was a little relieved. Cleaning the bones of a loved one is an intimate moment, and I was sure I would feel out of place, not to mention disrespectful with a big camera in my hand. Thankfully, we were able to walk around and appreciate the tradition, culture, and oddly enough, the beauty of the different displays each family had put together as a testament of their love without interfering.
Call it morbid, but I was intrigued by the bones. Unless you’re in the medical field, it’s not every day you see what a skull or bones look like up close and personal. We could hear the sound of families praying together and even had the chance to talk to a few of the locals about the tradition. Some things that we learned are that this ritual only takes place in Pomuch, Campeche. More importantly, it is believed that if the family members don’t clean and care for the bones, that the soul of the deceased will become angry and wander the streets lost and lonely. I guess that’s why the cemetery was filled with fresh flowers, statues of angels, and burning candles. It was an experience I’ll never forget.