Cemeteries of Mexico

by Nancy Kilpatrick and Hugues Leblanc

Mexican cemeteries range from the modest to the grandiose, reflecting the diversity of a country with a population of over 100 million people. Catholicism is the dominant religion, which in Mexico has historically been influenced by the dictates of Spain and the Vatican. Reforms beginning in the 17th century have changed much of the western world, but Mexico has been slow to modernize, both in its socio-economic hierarchy (a wide gap still exists between the rich and the poor), and also its burial practices. Modern Mexico still hangs on to traditions that have long disappeared elsewhere. Cemeteries around the country reflect this state of affairs, with the world famous Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations nourishing the roots of the old ways.

Prior to the 17th century, the afterlife fate of everyone depended on attending church and having a successful funeral. For Catholics, the quickest way out of purgatory was with the help of the whole community. The involvement of religions groups and the use of sacred icons were viewed a helpful means of paving the way towards God, and funerals involved as many mourners as possible (including those paid to pray for the soul of the departed), in order to make one's stay in the in-between state a little shorter. In Spain, as in Mexico, church burials were the best means to that end and these reflected the prevailing social order. It was thought that interment in a particularly sacred place, one where intense worship occurred-for instance burial beneath the floor of the church, near the altar, or near the prayer benches, or even adjacent to the statue of a helpful saint--increased the chances of reaching heaven quickly. In a feudal, hierarchical society, the rich were allotted the best burial locations, and fervent church-goers would pray them into the after-life. All that faded by the end of the 18th century.

Reforms brought consciousness of inequality and some changes in how traditional institutions were seen. Was it fair that celebrated ecclesiastics and the wealthy received the best burial spots? How many people could be buried within a church? Epidemics in Europe made multi-burials in churches more difficult and, faced with obvious constraints (i.e. too many people competing for the plum spots), King Charles III of Spain in 1787 ordered all burials to be performed in suburban areas, which inadvertently resulted in more hygienic conditions. Burials within a church were slowly outlawed. Cemeteries came into being. The attendant shift in religious thinking meant that it was up to the individual to maintain a correct moral life and win his/her own salvation, much like the concept of living the perfect life that the Protestants embraced when they separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Individualism meant modernity. Inequality in life could be amended in death. Secular life was intended to supersede the old order.

In Mexico, this shift proved more difficult to actualize than elsewhere. Resistance occurred as one group after another tried to bend the new rules in order to accommodate someone important, someone who still believed in the old ways. The 'enlightened' were not against religious order, but the imperatives of civilization had to be answered. Starting in 1830, a decade after Mexico achieved independence, the state imposed fines for church burials. But while the new rules were heavily enforced, the deep-seeded belief of the people that it is important to accompany the dead to their final destination with a lavish and public funeral held on.

Wealthy and prominent Mexican families have adopted the new ways over the last two centuries, filling the important urban cemeteries with opulent tombs, making burials a bit less personal, abandoning the idea that funerals had to reflect institutionalized importance. In the countryside, however-and Mexico's population is made up of recently-converted Indians, mixed-breeds and outcasts, constituting at least 80 per cent of the nation-people adapted the new rules to their belief in uniting in the face of death, securing eternity with numbers, and celebrating the passage of ancestors from this world to the next.

Each year on November 1 and 2, Day of the Dead celebrations occur around Mexico. It is in the countryside, in states like Oaxaca, where the rituals are still strong. A week prior to this important holiday, cemeteries becomes hubs of activity in preparation for the two days when the dead return to visit the living. November 1 is devoted to children returning, November 2 is for adults. Every household builds an altar, with mementos of the departed, candles, flowers, the popular 'dead' folk-art figures (now highly collectible), and food to be consumed after the celebrations. But most of the preparations occur at the cemeteries. Families clean and whitewash the grave-markers, landscape the ground, plant brightly-colored flowers in abundance, particularly marigolds, the 'flowers of the dead'. Families cook their meals there, and burn sweet copal resin incense. Some sleep by the graves while others pray. Mariachi bands will sing a favorite tune of the departed for a few Pesos, and children happily eat sugar skulls on which the name of the deceased loved-one is written.

In Mexico City, the Pantheon Municipal--which has it's own metro station--, covers a large tract of land with straight roads and square lots. There are numerous sections where elaborate monuments and crypts have been built by some of the country's prominent families, most of which are European in design. In keeping with modernity, these sections are pretty much deserted by mourners most of the time, including during the Day of the Dead celebrations. One outstanding characteristic of crypts here is that many are underground, with 'cellar door' entrances that lead to the place of internment below. Police patrol these grounds, and funeral homes operate tents outside, offering future clients pre-arrangements.

Pantheon Dolores is another cemetery in Mexico City, enclosed within a large city park. Here, the middle-class and the less well-to-do are interred. Concrete and cement tombstones act as flower beds, occupying extended families of mourners with gardening. In this heat, dust and chaos of tombs, trees and mourners, one feels the real pulse of the population. Mariachi bands play at the well-attended funerals,--groups of mourners arrive in old school buses, and in ones and twos in the green and white old Volkswagen Beetles converted to taxis. Discarded coffins lay here and there rusting, dug graves are left unattended. Toppled monuments are abandoned, while others are decorated with too much plastic kitsch.

North West of Mexico City is Guanajuato, which still displays the beauty and grandeur of a colonial town, with streets of cobblestone and elaborate public fountains. Atop one of the hills is the pretty municipal panteon, divided into walled sections. Some burials are beneath ground, but most coffins are encased in the niches that form the thick surrounding walls. Dry heat in the day and cool, dry air chilling the night has made this cemetery famous. The panteon is multi-leveled, and at the lowest level is a mueum in which well preserved mummified bodies are displayed in glass cases. Early in the 20th century, when upkeep of the grave was no longer paid for, the occupant was disinterred. It was discovered that around 2 per cent of those from the wall niches were naturally mummified. At any given time, approximately 100 mummies are on display in the Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum), a fraction of the mummies the museum owns. This popular museum is another example of how Mexicans still integrate life and death.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Mexican cemeteries is the care taken by the living to keep the graves and crypts clean, neat, and beautiful. Mexicans experience death as a presence to be respected. Priests and kings may come and go, but generation after generation of families have learned to care for their own. Mourning is, appropriately, still a duty.

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