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.