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Archive for Sunday, October 31, 2004

Bones cleaned for spirits’ return

October 31, 2004

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— Antonio Haas pulls a wooden box from a small cement cubicle, brushes a year of dust from the top and pushes back the lid to reveal a pile of coffee-colored bones and a small skull covered with patches of hair.

It's what remains of his father who died five years ago, and with the Day of the Dead approaching, it's time for their annual cleaning.

It may strike outsiders as macabre, but Haas says it's "the most natural thing in the world."

"There is nothing to fear from the dead," he says, tenderly rubbing the skull. "It's the living we should fear."

For this 58-year-old farmer and dozens of other descendants of Mayan Indians in this small village on the Yucatan Peninsula, the last days of October are devoted to cleaning the bones: dusting, polishing, scrubbing and rearranging the skeletal remains of family members in time for the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans welcome the souls of the dearly departed back to Earth.

The ceremonies are Halloween, taken seriously.

Mexicans honor the dead on Nov. 1, when the souls of dead children are believed to arrive, and on Nov. 2, when adults are believed to return.

They celebrate with meals, songs and prayers, both at home and in cemeteries. Tombstones are illuminated by candles, laden with orange marigolds and piled high with the favorite foods of the deceased, including tamales, small skulls made of sugar, and "bread of the dead": round, sugar-sprinkled loaves topped with strips of crust symbolizing bones and a knob representing the skull.

But Pomuch and a handful of other small Mayan communities dotting the Camino Real Alto region of the peninsula go further.

Ruben Cohuoo, 18, and his mother, Guadalupe Che, clean and
rearrange the bones and grave of their grandparents in Pomuch Town,
in the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. In this small
village, residents spend the last few days of October cleaning the
bones of departed family members in honor of the Day of the Dead,
when Mexicans welcome the souls of the dead back to earth.

Ruben Cohuoo, 18, and his mother, Guadalupe Che, clean and rearrange the bones and grave of their grandparents in Pomuch Town, in the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. In this small village, residents spend the last few days of October cleaning the bones of departed family members in honor of the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans welcome the souls of the dead back to earth.

Without blinking an eyelash, Haas pulls one bone after another out of the box, wiping away black grit with an embroidered handkerchief. The handkerchief has served as a bed for his father's remains for the past year.

Bone-cleaning is believed to date to pre-Hispanic Mayan cultures, and is carried on today "so that when the souls return they will see they haven't been forgotten," says Venancio Tus Chi, 42, a cemetery employee who for 25 pesos ($2) will clean bones for families who don't have the time.

Modern-day Maya in the Camino Real Alto initially bury their dead in coffins, but after three or four years, they exhume them, dry the bones in the sun and scrub them with a soft cloth or small paintbrushes.

The bones are placed in small wooden boxes and laid in cement cubicles, viewable from the outside through wrought-iron doors.

Before and after the Day of the Dead celebrations, the boxes are left open to view and decked with flowers and votive candles. Empty eye sockets peer out from skulls perched on piles of carefully arranged bones.

Each year, the newly cleaned bones are placed on, or wrapped inside a new handkerchief embroidered with brightly colored flowers, initials or symbols reflecting the departed person's personality or favorite things. It's like "changing their clothing so they will rest more peacefully," explained 24-year-old Valdemar Euan, who cleans his grandmother's bones.

"Some people are afraid of touching the bones," says Maria de la Luz Canun, 55, who last Sunday cleaned the dismantled skeletons of her son, great-grandmother and her two in-laws.

"But it's like when you visit your mother: You may help bathe her, dress her, comb her hair. This is the same thing."

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