Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Guatemalan funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Turkish funeral traditions and Zimbabwean funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Guatemalan rituals and beliefs typically are a combination of Christian and Mayan traditions. As of 2015, 45% of Guatemala’s population is Catholic, while 42% is Protestant. And with Mayan people making up about 40% of the population, their beliefs influence Guatemalan customs. As for Guatemalan funeral practices, they typically follow a mixture of Catholic and Mayan beliefs.
Preparation of the Body
The deceased’s family bathes and dresses the body immediately after the death. The burial is usually within a few hours of the death, so they prepare the body as soon as possible. Then, they place the body in a wooden casket that’s usually purchased in advance.
Since the burial happens shortly after death, most Guatemalan funeral traditions include the funeral procession and burial ceremony. For the procession to the cemetery, there are four stops along the way for praying: house doorway, yard, entrance onto the street, and the first street corner. At each stop, they place pennies on the casket to buy the deceased’s spirit’s entrance into heaven.
At the burial, they light candles and place the deceased’s favorite items inside the casket. This ensures the deceased’s spirit has a quick journey to the next life. It also prevents the deceased’s spirit from returning and haunting their family.
During the burial, mourners kiss some soil and throw it into the grave to honor the deceased. They also throw water onto the grave to make sure it’s packed and prevent werewolves and other evil creatures from getting the remains.
Grief is usually something openly shared. At the burial, many mourners weep, scream, or even lash out as the body is lowered into the grave. However, they don’t do this at a child’s funeral; they believe crying denies the child’s spirit a quick journey to heaven.
Day of the Dead
For the Day of the Dead on November 1st, families visit or even spend the day at the cemetery. They bring flowers and other decorations for their loved ones’ graves. They also share stories and meals, such as the traditional Guatemalan dish fiambre.
You’ll also see many large, unique kites soaring throughout the sky for the Kite Festival. Many families make their own kites with hidden messages about the deceased. Traditionally, they thought the kites sent messages to the spirits of the departed.
When the night celebrations are over, they must make sure there aren’t any burning candles or standing water. If spirits come in the form of moths, they can die from fire and water and might not return next year.