Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Living Dead

Halloween always brings back fond memories of my time in Peru. It’s not uncommon to find groups of kids dressed in costumes on that day shouting “Halloween, Halloween” (they don’t yell “trick or treat”) and scrounging for goodies. But it’s the two days following Halloween that intrigue me the most. Myths and superstitions abound and it’s these Incan and Peruvian traditions that are the inspiration behind my current novel, Vestige.

The Incas believed ancestral spirits shared the world of the living. Mummified kings and queens were treated as though alive, and were consulted as seers who bore messages from the gods. The descendents of royalty gave the mummies food and drink and took them to visit other mummies, linking the worlds of past and present.

Sharing the cosmos with the living and dead were the gods and spirits of the landscape. Mountain peaks, rocky outcrops and springs represented ancestors and guardian spirits. Many festivals were held in their honor, with the hope the living would receive their blessings for a bountiful harvest. And for the buried ancestors, it was usual for the graves to have built-in conduits so libations could be offered easily.

Steeped in history and religion, modern-day Peru is constantly blending the old and the new. Cuzco is a classic example. Downtown is a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and centuries old buildings containing Internet cafes and bars. Buses and cars zoom past immaculate post-Colombian architecture built on Incan foundations. Modern holidays are observed, but ancient traditions are also celebrated.

My favorite holidays are held the first two days of November. Nationally, All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day, but in Cuzco, there is a slight variation. November 1 is Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and is celebrated with delectable delights such as tantawawa (breads shaped in the figures of babies and horses), lechon (roast suckling pig), sugar cane, and chicha (fermented maize that can have the saliva of the makers in it – yes, it seriously can). This momentous day is quickly followed by Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) when families honor their ancestors with visits to their burial grounds.

I was lucky enough to experience Día de los Santos Difuntos at the invitation of a colleague of mine who grew up in Cuzco. We bought flowers at the stall next to the cemetery and made our way into the grounds. Hundreds of people milled around the walls that contained 2-foot-by-1.5- foot niches representing their relatives’ final resting places. In Peru, when a person dies they are only buried in the ground for ten years, then dug up and cremated with the ashes being placed in the wall at the cemetery. For the wealthy, though, the ashes are put in marble tombs that are big enough to contain the whole family.

The niches for the deceased had spaces large enough for each family to make a diorama within them. Inside the glass enclosures were figurines, paintings, and photos that signified the ancestor’s life. For example, if the deceased was a football fan, football paraphernalia might adorn the space. A musician may have a CD of their favorite music or a miniature of the instrument they played. The attention and creativity that goes into creating these dioramas are a testament to the adoration the families have for the deceased person.

Coming from a country where death is a reverent affair, it was hard to adjust to the celebrations around the cemetery. A band had formed at the cemetery gate and the musicians beat drums and blew trumpets, the tune becoming more discordant as the day wore on and as more alcohol was consumed. Dancing, singing, and storytelling were in abundance and the atmosphere had become electric. Every now and again, a cloud of sadness would float through the crowd, but the general feeling was one of fond remembrance for the loved one.

Although our group didn’t make it through the whole night, family members stayed with their ancestors to greet the new day. When I finally walked away with my friend, my view of death had changed completely. One’s life should be celebrated – whether the person is alive or dead.

What books, movies or experiences have touched upon a superstition or tradition and made you reassess your values or look at life differently?


  1. Coming from a combination of Russian and Jewish cultures, where death is regarded with great sorrow (you are supposed to cry and weep at a Russian funeral and sit Shiva for days if you’re a Jew) I couldn't ever imagine associating a person’s departure with anything festive. But, after living with my Italian husband, I came to know better. Although Italians do not celebrate their dead with such great intensity as you describe, but once the reverent visit to the funeral home is over, there comes dinner, wine and dessert, and social conversations slowly but surely overtake the sorrow. It shocked me at first, but I eventually came to see the reasoning behind it, similar to what you mentioned – one's life should be celebrated no matter what, and it’s the living who should celebrate it.

  2. Yes, it is a hard concept to get one's head around. It's fascinating how we're all human but because of our cultures and beliefs, our reaction to challenges in our lives can be so different.

  3. Alli, are those examples of tantawawa in the photo? Looks yummy (and it's lunchtime here). :)

    Many years ago I saw a movie called El Norte (a Mexican director, I believe, and in Spanish and a Mayan dialect). It was about Guatemalan refugees in California, and I watched it with some friends who just happened to be Guatemalan refugees in the U.S. The film was filled with symbolism, which my friends explained to me afterward. Dead fish in a flower basket was a premonition of death. There was also something with butterflies, but I forgot what they meant. Imminent departure, I think. Anyway, I remember the movie so vividly in large part because of the symbolism it contained. I've lost the storyline, but the images remain strong in my mind.

  4. Heidi, yes, they are tantawawas. I saw El Norte a while ago and I wish I could remember all of it, too. The symbolism in a lot of the movies and books that come from Mexico and Latin America is super interesting. Every time I do research I end up with more material than I need and of course that gets me thinking about how I can incorprate all that into more books!

  5. That must be why I love books and movies from Latin America. Even if I don't understand the symbolism, it gives stories depth and a certain poetry.

  6. Yep. I find the same with Indian authors, too. They have such a wonderful way of telling a story and myths and superstitions are sometimes incorporated into those stories.