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Video: Inside One of the World’s Most Colorful Cemeteries

According to Maya tradition, honoring the dead encourages the living to make peace with the inevitability of death.

Video by Bethany Jones

On the fringes of a densely crowded marketplace in the Guatemalan highlands, a reverent silence looms over the ivory gate of the Cementerio General. Beyond its deceptively sterile exterior, hundreds of vibrant tombstones pepper the hillside.

To outsiders, the passionate display of color may seem incongruent with loss of life—but according to indigenous Maya tradition, honoring the dead encourages the living to make peace with the inevitability of death.

In the K'iche' town of Chichicastenango, offerings of flowers, incense, candles, and chickens are made at the cemetery year-round. Families also clean and repaint the graves of their beloved during the annual Day of the Dead in early November. The colors themselves are steeped in symbolism—white represents purity, turquoise is for protection, yellow represents the sun’s life force, and others pay homage to the favorite color of the deceased.

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Every year families repaint the graves of their departed loved ones.

Despite their exuberant exterior, Guatemala’s cemeteries also have a darker side. Tombs are on lease, and if a family fails to pay rent, grave-cleaners may exhume the bodies, package the remains in plastic bags, and transfer them to mass graves—a practice that disproportionately affects poor families.

While Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, it remains infused with Maya ritual. The melding of pre-Columbian and Roman Catholic religions dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors arrived in modern-day Central America and attempted to wipe out indigenous culture. Over centuries of colonialism, their beliefs became intertwined.

The Popol Vuh—a sacred text that documents the creation of humankind according to Maya cosmovision—was discovered in Chichicastenango in the 18th century and continues to inform the beliefs and practices of the K'iche' people. According to the ancient manuscript, the dead dwell in the underworld of Xibalba, where they communicate with the living through dreams. But a person’s transition to the afterlife hinges on the observance of proper burial rituals.

If a body isn’t properly buried, some believe the soul becomes trapped between the realm of the living and dead, and lines of communication are severed. This belief was painfully potent during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996) that claimed upwards of 150,000 lives and whose legacy lingers in the country’s collective memory. During the brief presidency of Ríos Montt—who was later indicted for genocide—the Maya were declared “enemies” of the state and brutally massacred. Many were dumped in mass graves without proper burial—their families left to mourn their disquiet spirits. When these gravesites are discovered, special ceremonies are conducted to properly send them to afterlife.

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