Dalrymple on All Saints’ Day

On this Halloween weekend, these comments from pages 67-68 of Sweet Waist of America come to mind:

I like graveyards in general, and Guatemalan graveyards are particularly attractive. Every little pueblo has its cemetery, the plain block-like tombs gaily painted pink, yellow, white, purple, sky-blue or mauve. They are well cared for and not at all dismal. In the large towns, such as Chiquimula, there are also large family vaults with cherubim, seraphim and angels blowing trumpets.
On 1 November, All Saints’ Day, I had been in the little town of Salama, some sixty miles distant from the capital. All Saints’ Day is every cemetery’s day of glory, the day on which Catholic Guatemalans go with their families to the tombs of their dead relatives and spend the day there. Flowers are taken: real flowers, beautiful but ephemeral, or plastic ones, gaudy but permanent. A few days beforehand, the family refreshes the tomb with a coat of paint and renews the inscription. On the day itself, everyone picnics over grandmama, eating a dish called fiambre – rice and twenty different kinds of cold meat – which is prepared only for this day. Even in death, of course, there are class distinctions, no matter that old quarrels are forgotten. Near the entrance to Salama graveyard, where the local gentry lie buried in imposing vaults, I saw coiffured European ladies in fine silk dresses lay elaborate wreaths for their departed, many of whose names had passed from generation to generation from before independence, taking their titles such as General, Colonel, Doctor and Licenciado with them into the grave. A little further into the cemetery, where the tombs were plainer but boasted at least a brass plaque, a local schoolteacher and poet lay buried, who died prematurely and much lamented, though his flowers, planted in an empty tin of Nido, a brand of powdered milk, were but a simple bunch. Deeper still into the cemetery, and at its far edges, were the graves of the poor, mere mounds of earth planted with a wooden or iron cross without a name. But those below were not forgotten: the mounds had been’ scattered with fresh pine needles (such as Indians spread on churchfloors), and the crosses were draped with coloured paper or polythene, each widow or widower remembering which was the grave of their partner. No grave was totally neglected on All Saints’ Day, and even the graves of the dead without descendants were newly painted or strewn with a flower or two.
People from northern latitudes often find the customs of All Saints’ Day morbid. I found them not only charming, but moving and wise. It seemed to me that death as the inevitable end of life was accepted better in Guatemala than in our own culture, where everything possible is done to disguise the fact of death until the last moment, when it comes as a terrible shock. And surely it is some consolation to the dying to know that at least once a year they will be remembered.
Nothing could illustrate better the contrast in our attitudes to death than the behaviour of the North American lady with whom I visited Salama cemetery on All Saints’ Day. It happened that she was a member of the American Association of Graveyard Studies, which has a membership of 300, and as such I supposed she would be interested in the activities in the graveyard on this of all days. On the contrary, she regarded them as a hindrance to the proper study of gravestones as purely physical artifacts. I was rather embarrassed when, wishing to take a photograph of a particular tomb, she asked the family who had decorated it in remembrance to remove their flowers so that the tomb should appear in her photograph in its ‘natural’ state. She preferred her cemeteries dead in every possible sense, so that they were strange and alien places on the edge of town, with no connection to the world of the living. Thus death remained a taboo for her, despite her studies; she belonged to a culture in which death was warded off by facelifts, vitamin tablets, the magical avoidance of ubiquitous substances and even the freezing of corpses at -270°. Which was the wiser attitude?
Copyright 1990 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

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