It’s not often you’d describe a graveyard as a beehive of activity, but the cemetery here in Copan has been these past couple of days as the locals mark Dia de Los Difuntos.
Every Latin American country celebrates the Day of the Dead – or Day of the Deceased, as it’s known here – in their own way. In Honduras it’s a time for heading down to the cemetery to do a big cleanup of your loved one’s grave. There can’t be much budget in a poor country for maintenance staff at cemeteries, so it’s a chance for family members to spruce things up while honouring the memory of the mothers, fathers, grandparents and children buried there.
The Copan cemetery is a five-minute walk from where I live, so I headed over early yesterday morning to check out the activities. Some 15 families were already hard at work, and many more would come over the course of the next two days.
Some families just needed to freshen up the flowers a little or clear out a few weeds. But others were in the midst of full-on construction projects – putting a new roof on a tomb, repainting, finishing off a monument’s ceramic trim that they hadn’t been able to afford up until now.
I was a bit apprehensive about showing up with my camera like a big, gawky tourist. I contemplated trying to sneak in a few shots, but thought that would be just plain disrespectful. So I just started asking people if it would be all right if I took a photo of them working. Everybody was completely fine with that – happy, even.
I wandered around the small cemetery for longer than I intended, feeling moved by the love and family connections that had brought everybody there. Whether they were tending to beautifully kept mausoleums or teeny crosses hand-painted with a family member’s name, all of them were there to remember somebody who’d meant a great deal to them. Every culture does that in their own way, but something about seeing a man on his hands and knees pulling long grass away from his wife’s grave really adds to the poignancy of the act.
We tend toward a more sanitized version of remembering in Canada. My father’s ashes are in a beautifully kept cemetery in Victoria marked with a perfectly lettered memorial plaque. I know my mother was hurt that I never wanted to go to the memorial park to “visit” him when we lived in Victoria, but it never felt like he was really there.
But walking past the Copan grave of Fanny Carolina Leonor Garin, dead at the tender age of 28, watching the husband she’d left behind lovingly restoring her grave to a vivid shade of turquoise– well, I felt her there. I could feel Juan Antonio Lopez Jacinto in the scrawl of his name painted on one end of his tomb. The dead were alive again in the faces of their cheerful family members, who were busily scrubbing and sanding and reminiscing about the people buried beneath their feet.
A Canadian memorial park is much, much tidier and greener than the overgrown, dusty plot of land where Copanecos bury their dead. Our dead in Canada exist amid a kind of hushed tranquility that I associate with funeral homes and carefully managed sorrow.
But something about the sheer disorder of the Copan cemetery feels so genuine. Death is messy and sad. All the well-trimmed and verdant landscaping of a typical North American cemetery can’t change that.
It was practically like hearing people’s thoughts as I wandered through the graves in Copan.
My neighbour was there, mopping the floor of the mausoleum where the family had buried their young son after his murder. Two children sat atop their grandfather’s tomb nearby, sorting through the plastic flowers they’d brought to fancy things up. An elderly man bent near his wife’s grave, silently sharpening his machete to take another crack at the saplings pushing through the soil. Their labours seemed like such a wonderful expression of love.
May eternity find me in a similar place one day, asleep among the wild things until the people who love me return to make me real again.