Peru: Dancing with the dead

By Jody Kurash

On the first day of November each year, families from across Peru congregate in a gigantic graveyard in Lima to connect with their ancestors ... many even spend the night there.

The Day of the Dead is an important day in Latin America. Photo / AP
The Day of the Dead is an important day in Latin America. Photo / AP

With the magical sound of wooden flutes, the scent of incense and the Andean sun making shadows across the rolling hills, this event has all the hallmarks of a happy, festive occasion.

Families spread out picnics; strolling musicians and vendors sell cotton candy, toys, flowers and food.

But this celebration is taking place at el Cementerio de Nueva Esperanza, one of the largest cemeteries in the world.

The event is the Day of the Dead, celebrated throughout Latin America on November 1 - a day after American children go trick-or-treating for Halloween.

It's a day when families from across Peru congregate in the gigantic graveyard in Lima to connect with their ancestors, and many even spend the night here.

Although the Day of the Dead is most famously observed in Mexico, it's also an important holiday in Peru and neighbouring Bolivia, where traditions honouring the dead predate Catholicism.

The Incas honoured their ancestors by displaying their mummies in a prominent place and sharing a meal and liquor with them. A shaman would be called upon to communicate with them and bring blessings from relatives back to the living.

The observance includes a procession in honour of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a female folk saint originating in Mexico. A Grim Reaper-like skeletal figure dressed in a long robe, she is associated with healing, protection and the after-life, and represents the mummies once honoured by native people.

An altar with a sculpture of the boney lady is carried by four to six men through the cemetery while crowds follow. The statue is made primarily of maguey, an Amazonian jungle plant related to agave. Colectivo Intinarte, a Lima artist co-operative founded in 2008, organises the fiesta of Santa Muerte.

Shaman Paul Naveda presides over a ritual called a despacho ceremony, with offerings to spirits and a blessing. He belts out cries that sound like the call of the condor, to invite spirits to join the celebration with the living. The statue is carried though the graveyard's steep, snaking dirt paths led by the shaman. Puppeteers and jugglers perform - it has the feel of Mardi Gras or a New Orleans jazz funeral.

John Alvarado Palomino, one of the event's organisers, says Lima's modern Day of the Dead is a mix of traditions: "Mexico marks the holiday as a way of honouring the dead. But in Peru, we also call upon the ancient customs from the Andean people and the magic of Amazonians."

At sundown, the altar is disassembled. The moon begins to rise. Across the cemetery, flickering candles and twinkling lights illuminate the tombs where families will spend the night communing with their ancestors.

- AP

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