What we learned from the cemetery in Xela, Guatemala

Posted on 04. Jan, 2011 by in Central America, Guatemala

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Ceremonies surrounding death in Central America are as intensely sorrowful as vibrantly cheerful. There is a relationship with death which balances a process of deep mourning followed by colorful celebration. It begins with a dramatically slow funeral procession with hundreds of people dressed in black following a hearse as it winds through town from the church to the cemetery. The scene forces even unrelated bystanders to contemplate the sadness of death, if only for a few minutes.

Yet cemeteries are vibrant places where celebrations like the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) see floods of people celebrating the dead among freshly painted and decorated pink, turquoise, mint green and bright yellow graves. These jovial events can be so casual that between family picnics and kite-flying on top of the graves, the dead below seem to play second fiddle to a good old fashioned family day out (we say ‘seem to’, as in reality, there are quite a few tears in remembrance of family and friends as well.)

The style of burial, like so many aspects of life in general in Central America, has shifted from the sprawling decadence of large scale mausoleums to compact slabs of cement. One hundred years ago, families buried their loved ones in grand mausoleums in the shape of Roman-style buildings, gothic tombs or even Egyptian pyramids. While following generations moved away from such grandeur, the tombstones remained beautifully ornate and the surrounding space was roomy enough for eternity.

Today, the most recent plots in Xela’s cemetery resemble apartment blocks, where anywhere from 6 up to 30 people are buried, bound to spend eternity in their own cramped ‘apartment’.

Maybe this results from financial hardship (death is costly) or perhaps out of decreasing space. It could also be cultural result that hinges on a slowly growing middle and working class who demand that cemetery plots are no longer reserved only for the rich and their immense mausoleums.

A more major difference in the cemeteries of Guatemala can be found toward the back, where the Maya population traditionally buries their dead. Here, dirt graves marked by wooden crosses with the name and birthday scribbled sloppily in permanent marker fill rows and rows of unkempt land.

The festivities also take place here, on top of these piles of dirt that children play, vendors sell ice cream, and families picnic next to knocked-down signs which try to warn families of the dangers of eating with unwashed hands in this particular section of the cemetery. There is surely no area of the famous Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery (our favorite cemetery in the world so far), or any other U.S. or European cemetery, with graves like these, no matter how poor the family of the deceased.

Even more shocking was the mass grave in the Xela cemetery. Exploring beyond these dirt graves lead to a mass grave where bodies are moved when surviving family members who could not afford to buy a plot do not pay the rent. The mass grave is also where hundreds of bodies were buried in 2010 after the torrential rains and mudslides killed and displaced countless villagers in the countryside.

Visiting one of Guatemala’s colorful cemeteries is a learning experience like no other. Especially larger cemeteries like that of Xela or Chichicastenango are reflective of the wider community in general, but in such a definite way. It is here, scrambling between the dichotomy of dirt graves and majestic mausoleums that things like the extreme class differences, treatment of the poor, and the country’s history and culture (in the form of festive celebration and mourning) become abundantly clear.

More photos of the fascinating cemetery of Quetzaltenango in our Flickr slideshow:



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11 Responses to “What we learned from the cemetery in Xela, Guatemala”

  1. Kevin

    04. Jan, 2011

    Very, very bad memory of that cemetery. Was there for a funeral, the newborn baby of a friend from a language school. So horrible. Nothing is subtle or subdued in Guatemala. Not the pain, the joy, the generosity, the beauty, the poverty, the crime, the history, the colors. Everything is intense. Even the landscape is volcanoes. There is no place quite like it and I have many memories, both happy and sad, of Xelaju!

    Reply to this comment
    • jess

      04. Jan, 2011

      Hi Kevin, so sorry to hear about the reason behind your visit to the cemetery in Xela. Your words about Guatemala describe the country perfectly. Guatemala is intense, nothing is muted, everything is at 100% all the time – ‘even the landscape is volcanoes’ – exactly! Thanks for reading and sharing that!

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  2. Kenan Lucas

    04. Jan, 2011

    I watched a documentary about Day of the Dead in Mexico and it was so facinating. Especially when you compare Western traditions when it comes to death and funerals – black attire, quiet and reserved mourning, etc – I think I prefer the Latin American approach!
    Kenan Lucas recently posted..The Lessons You Learn After Jumping Off A 47 Metre Bridge

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    • jess

      04. Jan, 2011

      Hey Kenan! We definitely prefer the Latin American approach, too. The colorful cemeteries bring a whole different atmosphere to funerals and death in general, something we often forget – the element of the celebration of life.

      Reply to this comment
  3. Ayngelina

    04. Jan, 2011

    I spent the day of the dead here in Cuenca. In Latin America the cities that are more Catholic than indigenous tend to have more solemn ceremonies.

    From country to country and city to city you can see a vast difference in how things are celebrated with the indigenous influence providing more of a celebration than a mourning.
    Ayngelina recently posted..2010- The year bacon got a little crazy

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    • jess

      05. Jan, 2011

      It’s interesting to see how different each culture celebrates or mourns the dead. We’ve also noticed quite a difference in the look of the cemeteries in each country – and we have to say that the ones in Guatemala were by far the ones that were best taken care of. We are looking forward to seeing South American cemeteries, especially La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, which is always listed as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.

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  4. Andi

    06. Jan, 2011

    Wow these pics are amazing!
    Andi recently posted..Happy New Year!!!

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  5. Erica

    07. Jan, 2011

    Wow. You captured the colors amazingly! I can imagine that being in ANY cemetery make you confront your mortality – regardless of the celebration method.
    Erica recently posted..1000-1000 Challenge

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  6. neha

    19. Feb, 2011

    Beautiful photos. Such a different approach to death from my part of the world.

    Reply to this comment
  7. neha

    19. Feb, 2011

    Beautiful photos. Such a different approach to death when compared to my part of the world.

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      20. Feb, 2011

      Thank you! We feel the same way – the Latin American way to celebrate death is very different to the way we approach it in Germany / the U.S. After having traveled through most of Central America now, we have to say that Guatemala has by far the most beautiful cemeteries!

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