Halloween & Day of the Dead: Two Different Celebrations

Depending on what you read, the origin of Halloween

  • is rooted in the Christian ‘All Hallow’s Eve’– the first of three days for remembrance of the dead and saintly martyrs or
  • is based in Celtic pagan celebrations, which mark the end of the harvest season.

Either way, Halloween has departed from its roots, is almost entirely independent of Christian or pagan beliefs and has become a lighthearted, fun celebration for children and adults alike. Little ghosts and goblins still go knocking on doors for candy but now they are more often cartoon characters and movie stars. It’s a chance for childish masquerade.

Although Halloween is finding its way in, it’s still not fully embraced outside of North America. For instance, some children in the UK go door to door but many homes go dark and don’t respond. In South America Halloween is really only embraced in urban centres by disco-going youth looking for a special party and a handful of children whose parents want to participate in the spirit of the North American celebration. But it’s confusing for some.

In Chile many say Halloween is something from ‘gringo-landia’ and it’s seen as a rude, commercial intrusion into their sacred Day of the Dead. Because Halloween entered into Chilean culture only recently, not everyone even knows it exists. For example, on Halloween 2000, an elderly Chilean lady, as religious and superstitious as one could be, was boiling hot water for tea when someone knocked on her door. When she opened it and saw a small devil standing in front of her, she was frightened out of her wits. She panicked, picked up the kettle and threw boiling water at the little devil. The parents of the child in devil costume took the old lady to court. She was found not guilty for an obscure reason to do with being ignorant of the festivity and defending herself from the devil in her own home.

Halloween is fun in North America. And the Day of the Dead is sacred in South America. I don’t know if the two will meet in a cooperative spirit. The following photos clearly demonstrate the difference between cultures.

Dressed up for Halloween

Last year Canadian girls Kelsey and Shelbi got their mother to deck them out in iconic Mexican Day of the Dead style while little Britynn was dressed as a cat. Costumes by Tami Carter are fabulous and get better each year. 


Family sharing a meal at a graveside, Day of the Dead

In contrast, a family just outside of Quito sits down to share a meal at the tomb of a dead relative. It’s a serious family day that usually means working together, sharing memories and paying respects to those gone before them. It’s an effort to keep the family (both dead and alive) involved in each other’s lives.

Day of the Dead, Fast Approaching

November 1st. (Bigger and certainly more important than Hallowe’en, which many South Americans consider a commercial and a pagan celebration, refusing to participate despite North American-style stores and discos doing their best to promote it.)

Imagine, upon arrival at the gates of Santiago de Chile’s General Cemetery, being swept up in the multitude, rubbing shoulders with the colour and excitement of families as they bustle towards the entrance carrying their lunches, brooms, pails and ornaments. Imagine standing in line with the crowds to buy flowers and balloons from one of the dozens of kiosks that line the exterior wall of the cemetery, and then in the heat of the mid-day sun, ordering traditional peach and barley juice and kebabs from sellers who set up makeshift barbecues, smoke rising from every street corner.

Adding to the din of music that blares from somewhere (everywhere!) city buses that exhale heavy diesel fumes pull up one after the other, stopping briefly to allow elderly couples to step out. Children jump off, pulling at their parents’ sleeves to drag them towards ice cream sellers and organ grinders.

All of this… and you haven’t even entered the gates yet.

During The Day of the Dead close to a million visitors walk through the grand portals of Santiago General Cemetery. This is not taking into account the families who walk across the street to visit the Catholic Cemetery or those who visit “Memory Park”, which is a nearby North American-style lawn cemetery.  In a city of more than six million, this sector is the hub of activity for the week leading up to The Day of the Dead.

While in North America The Day of the Dead passes virtually unnoticed, in South America it’s an important reconnection, reminder and celebration of those you love. The living and dead come together to share a glass of wine, a meal and to catch up on gossip. Many families like to clean and prepare the tomb the week before any important national holiday so that on the day itself, they’re free to just sit and visit with a bottle of wine and a homemade meal.

A visit to a cemetery at the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador confirmed the importance of this holiday all over South America. Here they celebrate, for the most part, on November 2nd. The streets are also full of noisy activity and vendors with barbecued meat, largely pigs on huge spits. The traditional drink for Ecuador’s Day of the Dead is a hot purple concoction made from black corn flour, fruits and berries, which is served with a sweet bread shaped in the form of a baby, similar in appearance (but not in taste) to gingerbread men.

The Day of the Dead celebrations vary according to where you live. Being the driest place on earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert provides a perfect environment for bodies to naturally mummify. In some of its Andean communities, families actually disinter the bodies of their departed ones, seat themselves on a chair opposite and literally enjoy a face-to-face visit.

Creepy? Not at all. Simply a special family gathering.

Checking in at Hard Bed Hotel

trolleys parked at the entrance of the Catholic Cemetery, Santiago, Chile

Like waiting taxis the trolleys are lined up and ready to be sent on their next mission.

The trolleys, parked in the foyer of the Catholic Cemetery in Santiago, Chile are waiting patiently for their next assignment – that of carrying a coffin and its contents to its final resting place.  This image appears on the front cover of Hard Bed Hotel because it says it all. Hard Bed Hotel – the title of the book – is a Chilean slang for ‘cemetery.’

A conversation might go something like this:
“Where did Jaime disappear to? I haven’t seen him for weeks.”
“Oh, didn’t they tell you? He’s staying at Hard Bed Hotel.”
“No! When did he check in? And how did it happen?”

The similarities between signing into a hotel and checking into the cemetery are many – trolleys at your service, prepared to carry your load, the administrator arranging details of the stay and caretakers with hands out for a tip.

But this time there’s no question of how many days you’d like to reserve. It’s an eternal stay and the question is simply which room? Will you rent a niche for 25 years? Or do you own your own mausoleum? It will be the current administrator’s successor who will renew the lease after 25 years and if necessary, arrange the move to a new niche. This is all very long-term, you understand. No short term options at Hard Bed Hotel.

And it’s the family who will be tipping the porter after the cargo is safely in place.

These trolleys have made hundreds, if not thousands of trips down the main streets of the cemetery, rolling along as stoic participants at the edge of somber ceremonies and then returning to their place in the hall to await the next resident.

Look at them. They’re tired but satisfied.

Less Than Royal But Rich in Colourful Treasure

Personalities abound in limited space. Because everyone is identified by his or her idiosyncrasies and since the personality of the deceased is reflected by what’s on their niche shelf, the importance of paraphernalia cannot be understated. Thus kind strangers often take pity on a barren shelf, donating flowers and small ornaments to help lift it out of its loneliness. And eager to provide amusement in the afterlife, families regularly add to their child’s afterlife toy collection, smothering the narrow shelf space to the point where the child’s nameplate is hidden from sight.

Child's niche full of toys and gifts.

Child’s toys crowd the space as though the family just can’t give enough. Deflated balloon are evidence of a recent birthday celebration.

When visitors drop by, it’s the tomb decoration that provides conversational starting points. For instance a football pennant would get things off the ground – “You’re looking good today, Señor. Once a fan of Universidad de Chile, always a fan, I see. You’re lucky the sun hasn’t faded the pennant. God must be doing you some favours. You know they won the championship again this year. Maybe you interceded on their behalf?” The visitor might chuckle and a cordial – often transforming into bawdy – dialogue might ensue. The live visitor will kindly leave space in the conversation should the deceased desire to respond from the tomb. Thus as you wander the paths between the walls, you often see visitors looking up in long, silent pauses at a photo in the niche.

The grave of a Colo Colo football fan

Tomb of a die-hard football fan, who no doubt made it known he wanted to be buried with the team insignia.

In death as in life, one’s home is one’s home, to be appreciated for its distinct character and charm, to be welcoming and hospitable, and above all to provoke pleasant memories that will leave all parties satisfied. The visitor is meant to return home full, as though having consumed a hearty meal, one that he can digest until it’s time to return for the next visit.
(excerpt from Hard Bed Hotel)

Doors to Eternity

Illustrious entrances to Santiago General Cemetery

Two of the four main entrances to the sacred grounds of El Cementerio General, Santiago, Chile.

Beautiful works of art on doors

Winged virtue and protection, “Shhh, they are resting,” “I’m here to comfort you.” – three of hundreds of beautiful doors and façades.


In addition to Santiago’s General Cemetery’s main portals, there exist thousands of individual doorways leading to eternity.

Carved from marble or forged out of wrought iron, beautiful works of art are designed to invite you beyond today and into a place where time is irrelevant, somewhere to commiserate with those who rest inside. Very likely it’s an extended family, beginning with the patriarch. He will have the place of honour, entombed upstairs beneath the altar, straight across from this elegant entrance. And he’ll be surrounded by immediate family. There will be a trap door leading to the basement where other family members (somehow less deserving of higher levels) are buried.

In life you would never be so bold as to approach the house belonging to this family, it would probably have armed guards at the gate. But here, you can put your nose to the door and dare to ask about their history, the essence of which, at least in terms of their spiritual devotion to one another and to a higher power, is evidenced at the entrance.

Maybe the graceful figures carved here are protection from such intrusion, the intention being that upon seeing their definitive beauty, you will realise that you don’t need to know any more.  The family is saying, “Let’s leave it at that, our family secrets are forever secret. Look upon us how we wish to be seen. Have we not, after all, created such beauty here that we will all be rewarded?”

The Most Colourful Place in Town

The town of Tocopilla on Chile’s northern coast is trapped on a narrow strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the towering Andes. Its possibilities for growth are limited and its economy has been depressed since Pinochet revoked its status as a major port in punishment for it being fiercely left wing.

Tocopilla from the sea

Tocopilla forever! Trapped, shaken and downtrodden but alive with valiant spirit.

Tocopilla's local saint, Malvinita

The alcove erected in the name of Malvinita a locally-appointed saint , is decorated for Christmas. Visitors regularly pray here, asking for favours and giving thanks for those granted.

Tocopilla cemetery after the earthquake of 2007

The cemetery takes shape once more after the earthquake.

Decorative niches in cemetery walls, Tocopilla

Visitors stand under the shade of tarps to chat with loved ones during the Christmas season. These walls were erected outside of the cemetery gates as a temporary resting place while the earthquake repairs were underway in the cemetery proper.

Although the town has recovered somewhat, it doesn’t hold a candle to its glory days. It has decayed – its unpainted walls and rusty roofs have blended into the brown and grey of the mountains and it has become an unwitting desert camouflage. But it doesn’t take much paint to brighten up a small mausoleum and it doesn’t take many small ornaments, lively plastic flowers and photos set into niches to create a speckled sea of colour over the sand. And that’s what Tocopilla’s cemetery has become – an oasis of colour in the midst of a bone-dry town.

Even the 7.8 earthquake of 2007 couldn’t keep the cemetery from coming to life again. After the walls and tombs were violently disturbed and their contents offered up to the blue November sky, swift action was taken to repair the cemetery; certainly for health and sanitation but mostly for the dignity of the families and their departed loved ones.

New walls were erected and the temporary quarters in niches were quickly filled. In true South American form, the niches, short-term as they were meant to be, were brought to life again with care and attention of family members who couldn’t bear to leave departed loved ones feeling desolate or misplaced. The decorations came out, the musical Christmas cards went in and visitors flocked to the space. Not even an earthquake prevents a quality family visit with the departed, who will rest in the most dignified style that little money can buy.

May I take your coat?

coat and hat“No, thank you. I won’t be long. I’ll just put it here.” And you imagine the man bending low as he carefully places the cloak on the bench before setting a small notebook beside it and covering it with his hat.

I ran across this monument in an upper-middle class neighbourhood of the Santiago General Cemetery and was captivated by its simple mystery. I’m not sure why it evokes both sadness and comfort – this hat and cloak placed so casually across the bench, as though the owner just dropped in for a cup of tea – this, his effort to make his situation transient when it’s so permanently cast in stone, his desire not to be there against the power of an unsympathetic destiny.

Or maybe it’s quite the opposite. Maybe it says, “Thank you. This looks like a lovely place to rest. I think I’ll stay awhile. May I leave this here?” and the man walks only a few steps to rest under a tree at the edge of the plaza.

I wonder if there is a notebook there and what it contains. Poetry perhaps, as Chileans are known for poetry. But it will remain private.

Who designed this bench that is not for sitting? Was it the wish of the person who died? Or did the family decide upon it?

I struggle with the ambiguity of the concept. Perhaps that’s the point and it rejects any discussion. South American resignation: It is what it is. Embrace it.

The Eternal Relevance of Syndicates

Italian Mausoleum, door to entrance

Beautifully carved door at the entrance to the grand mausoleum of the Italian Mutual Aid Society

One of the grand society mausoleums in El Cementerio General de Santiago de Chile, The Spanish Mutual Aid Society

One of the grand society mausoleums in El Cementerio General de Santiago de Chile, The Spanish Mutual Aid Society

Interior of French Society Mausoleum

Renovations in the interior of the mausoleum of the French Society, Santiago de Chile

If you’re a union supporter, you’ll love this because it extends the relevance of unions to life beyond. And if you’re not, you’ll find it of interest because it’s a cultural predisposition that emphasises the care and memory of departed loved ones.

In addition to traditional family mausoleums, South American cemeteries are populated with large and small mausoleums in the name of worker syndicates and social clubs.

As you wander the paths of cemeteries in small towns you’ll inevitably come across sections of a wall painted a bright colour to stand out from the rest with large letters that might read, for instance, “Illustrious Syndicate of Northern Miners” or “Central Fishermen’s Union” or “National Union of Railway Workers.” And there you’ll find the tombs of individual members who very likely died on the job but also those lucky ones who grew old and died in retirement.

In bigger cities you’ll find more obscure industry unions such as, “The National Union of Newspaper Typesetters”.  My speculation is that because individual funerals and tombs are too expensive for surviving families to afford, someone, way back when, realised that they needed to plan ahead and they allotted a percentage of the union fees towards these necessities. In addition, many workers are fiercely loyal to their trade and as proud members of a group, they choose to be buried with their ‘compadres’. The point is that the maintenance of resting places and pride in the memories of people who have passed on is a priority – enough that unions in a poor country allocate a portion of their precious budget for it.

Unions are not the only organised groups to provide eternal resting places. Social clubs also build mausoleums, and often they’re grand ones. In Santiago’s General Cemetery the Italian Society, Spanish Society and French Society have immense structures with space for hundreds, if not thousands of members. The “Italian Humanitarian Society of Mutual Help” is especially amazing; you enter through a copper door that is an elaborate work of art in itself before walking up several stories via a ramp that winds around like a snail. The French one is round with a huge high dome, niches built into the walls from floor to ceiling.

The mausolems bring honour to both the departed workers and society members as well as to the organisations themselves; money buys only the best architecture and the structures are well-maintained.

So You Think You Have a Hard Bed?

Chileans are masters of quick wit and they’re capable, in a split second, of inventing apt slangs that immediately twist a situation into something absurdly comical. They love to have a laugh at their own expense and often there’s little regard for political correctness.

I make no apologies for absconding with one of several Chilean slangs for ‘cemetery’ and using it for the title of my book.

‘Hard Bed Hotel’ (Hotel Cama Dura) needs no explanation and it’s perfect for the story of a desparate guy with half a brain (but a whole lot of good hair) who sets up digs in the family mausoleum. As it turns out there are, in reality, numerous living souls who share his situation and who find themselves sleeping side by side with the millions who have rested there for decades if not centuries.

In addition to ‘Hard Bed Hotel’, following is a list of Chilean slangs referring to ‘cemetery’ or for someone who’s half-way or already there. Some of the punch is lost in translation but you’ll get the idea:

  • Patio of the mutes (Patio de los Callados). This needs no explanation.
  • Where the souls grumble (Donde las almas penan). This comes from the idea that you can hear afflicted souls when you pass through a cemetery.
  • The parrot’s on his back (Se fue de espaldas el loro). You know it can only mean one thing when you see a bird lying on his back.
  • Dress in your wooden pyjamas (Ponerse al pijama de madera)
  • Stretch your legs (Estira la pata). Don’t use this one if you want to say that you’re going for a walk. In Chile, they picture someone flat out, legs stretched inside the box.
  • To cut out (Irse Cortina) This slang comes from ‘irse cortada‘, which means to get cut out.
  • Put away the sandals (Parar las chalas) Literally, “To Stop the Sandals”
  • Hand in your tools (Entregar las herramientas). Imagine taking the time to do this before you pass away.
  • The beginning of the autopsy (Principio de autopsia). Used for someone who’s at death’s door.
  • You smell like flowers (‘Andai’ pasa’o a flores). This in itself is a slang for smelling like flowers. If it wasn’t explained, it wouldn’t make sense because it is not literal. You can also say ‘you smell like gladiolas’. There are always flower sellers at the gates (to say nothing of those inside) of the cemeteries and normally you pass by on the way in and out. Thus this subtle hint about dying.
  • Ready for the photo (Listo pa’ la fóto) from the tradition of placing a framed photograph of the deceased at his tomb
  • At last the white smoke! (Por fin salió el humo blanco). With an obvious reference to a drawn-out selection of a new pope, this is also used when you’ve been waiting for someone you don’t particularly care for to pass away and when they finally die.
  • You’re out and about with the permission of the gate keeper. (Anda con permiso del panteonaro). This doesn’t have to do with dying exactly but it’s related to the cemetery. It is what someone might say to a person of very advanced age, meaning that they’re so old that they’ve risen from the grave and are wandering outside of the cemetery with permission of the cemetery gate keeper. 

Just a note about Chilean slangs in general. Although these are not cemetery-related, I can’t resist including here:

  • Rubber bell (Campana de goma) This is used to describe a person who’s very quiet, never voices an opinion nor participates.
  • Get into the envelope (Meterse al sobre). A mother might say this when she’s telling her children to go to bed.
  • He answers both phones (Contesta los dos teléfonos). He’s bisexual.

Having said all of this, Wikipedia  has a great list of English slang expressions for dying, some of which are similar and are also good for a laugh.

An Invitation to El Dorado

At a Cemetery Wall

Sharing stories through the walls during one of several Christmas visits, niches decorated for the season.

People take stories to their graves. And probably not just one story, but many.

I would invite you to sit with me on a bench at the base of the cemetery wall – its niches crammed with lives that were cut short, thin concrete walls separating those short lives from the cruel ones and the ones that were long and exotic – and just contemplate the silence.

Consider that it might be possible to slip in beside the souls who lie there and ask them to whisper what they wouldn’t reveal when they were alive.

Tales emerge from behind the walls. They creep into your consciousness, encouraging you to take events from someone’s life and weave them into stories. Real or imagined, you might never know but they’re treasures just the same. Perhaps the elusive El Dorado really lies in the cemeteries of South America.

So I ask for permission to take the stories and use them as I see fit; maybe there’s some truth to the tales, maybe not. In any case, I rationalise that the souls have unburdened themselves.

But information doesn’t just travel in one direction. The South American cemetery is a place of exchange, where conversations penetrate tomb walls to enter the realm beyond. Deep secrets from the living are entrusted to the souls who exist on the other side. And these silent souls, happy for your visit, starved for your information, remain intent on your words. They act like psycholgists scribbling crazy notes behind the couch as bits of your own life are, with permission, deposited into an eternal vault.

These deposits mingle with the lives of souls who have passed on, and stories from the dead and the living merge into marvelous, twisted tales.