Making a Living on the Day of the Dead

In El Salvador, the 2nd of November is not a day to go to work or school.  Known as El Día de los Difuntos or the Day of the Dead, it is a quiet day.  It is a day on which families go to the cemetery to spend time with their loved ones who have passed on to the next life.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, November 2nd is All Souls Day - a day dedicated to praying for the departed loved ones who are passing time in Purgatory.  Masses are said and intercessions are made in the hopes of shortening the time loved ones have before entering heaven.  In El Salvador, whatever their faith tradition, families find comfort in observing the Day of the Dead.  Especially for families whose hearts are broken by the loss of young lives due to violence, this day brings a chance to remember with photos, candles, flowers and time at the grave.

On November 1st, we traveled to Tonacatepeque for the Fiesta de Calabiuza.  This is an elaborate celebration of the spooky folk legends of the region, and includes an evening parade that begins near the cemetery outside of town.  Since we were so close to the cemetery, we decided to enter and walk for a bit, and to visit the graves of friends who are buried there.  

On our way into town, Blanca came running with big hugs and smiles.  She had been selling water and soda in the cemetery.  "The sales were not very good today," she said, "but hopefully they will be better's my tradition.  I sell drinks every year."  She was leaving to pick up her little guy, and also as the crowds seemed to be gathering in the streets for the parade.  I wondered who might have been around during the day buying water and soda.

As we wandered into the cemetery, it was clear that there were a whole lot of people there who might buy water or soda.  The place was crowded!  Young men and women with large home-made hoes were busy mounding the thin soil over grave sites.  Old men and little kids with paint brushes were touching up aqua or gold crosses, whitewashed tombs and little black fences.  A few families were gathered together placing plastic flowers over ceramic crypts.  

"Do you want us to paint?" a little boy asked us.  

"Um, no," we said.  

We slowly became aware that most of the people in the cemetery were not family members.  Most were workers.  A loud call of "Cleaning!  Painting!" confirmed our realization.  Like sellers in the street calling out "French bread!" or "Milk" the teams of grave cleaners were making the most of this work day.  Some had been hired by families ahead of time to wash the ceramic, clear away dead leaves, repaint names and even decorate the graves.  Others were taking advantage of the few family visitors to offer help with whatever grave project they had planned.

We spent a little time wandering, and had a hard time navigating through the crowded plots.  Some of the crosses were buried almost to the top.  These are the old graves, with layers of soil added to the original site as people are buried one on top of another.  The people with the hoes had mounded most of the newer dirt graves so that they looked freshly dug.  It was a little creepy to walk among the freshly hoed graves and look for our friends.  It was difficult to find them.  So many graves.  We remember our friends, how we miss them and how we continue to accompany their parents or their children in this life.

"Can we paint something for you?" children asked as we made our way back toward the entrance.

"No, thank you" we said.  A mariachi group played near one of the fancier graves:  a family celebrating their loved one.

We left the cemetery and walked past stands selling plastic flowers, thin fry bread served with honey, coconut water with ice, sweets and pupusas made with chipilin.  The crowds were growing larger - promising for those who were working to make a living on the Day of the Dead.


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