Fiesta in the Cemetery: Todos los Santos

I’ve never been invited to a fiesta in a cemetery before, not sure I ever wanted to be, but sometimes exceptions have to be made. It was Todos los Santos, All Saints Day, when Bolivians pay homage to their departed relatives and the focus of attention in Sucre shifts several blocks west of Plaza 25 de Mayo to the city’s cemetery.

Typically Bolivian, this was as much a celebration of life as a commemoration of the dead.

Technically November 1st is the Catholic festival of All Saints Day (followed on November 2nd by All Souls Day, or as it is better known, Day of the Dead), a huge event across Latin America. In reality this is another example where Catholicism appears crudely bolted on to more deeply held traditional beliefs. As an neutral observer it’s hard to see where pre-Hispanic beliefs end and Catholicism begins, and it highlights the cultural and religious fusion (perhaps confusion) that exists.

A shrine decorated for Todos Santos in Sucre’s main cemetery
A shrine decorated for Todos Santos in Sucre’s main cemetery

Add to this mix the North American tradition of Halloween with its witches hats, plastic pumpkins and spiders webs which was celebrated the day before All Saints Day, and the picture gets even more opaque. Walking through the centre of Sucre on October 31st it seemed like every child in the city had been dressed in ghoulish costumes for Halloween.

Todos los Santos starts on October 31st when people buy bread effigies to decorate shrines to the dead found in most Bolivian homes. It reminded me of the harvest festival in the UK which features food offerings and which was also a pagan festival co-opted by the early church. The bread effigies are supposed to bring good luck, so we got several to make our own shrine.

Bread effigies for Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

The bread ladder allows the soul of the dead to ascend to heaven, while the bull represents prosperity and the two figures are supposed to be angels. There are also a wide number of other bread and cake delicacies that you can only purchase on this one day of the year.

On the day of Todos los Santos everyone – and I mean everyone – in Sucre heads for the cemetery to commemorate the dead. All the streets leading to the cemetery were closed by the police creating spectacular traffic jams. Inside, the cemetery was packed with crowds of people, many of them bringing bread, cake, popcorn, fruit and sweets to place in front of their relative’s graves – like a picnic for the departed.

Crowds flood into Sucre’s cemetery for Todos Santos, Bolivia
A woman lays out food in front of a relative’s graves, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

The festival existed before the Spanish arrived and traditionally it was to ensure good rains and abundant harvests – although in pre-Hispanic times the dead were actually removed from their tombs and their families ate, drank and danced with the corpse.

Today, family members sit by the grave drinking fizzy drinks and smoking (smoking is supposed to have a spiritual dimension, and people who wouldn’t normally touch a cigarette develop 20-a-day  habits). As the crowds swirl past the tombs, people who may-or-may-not know the family stop at the grave and pray for the soul of the deceased. Prayers are rewarded by gifts of food, and all the food should be gone by the end of the day.

People pray in front of a grave, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

We visited the cemetery with Bolivian friends and their small children, all of whom managed to scoop up their own body weight in goodies. It is a bit like the trick-or-treat of Halloween, just with prayers. Families encourage people to pray for them and on several occasions we were called upon to pray in English (cue embarrassed mis-rememberings of the Lords Prayer), for which we received food as well. No one goes hungry on Todos Santos.

Praying for the soul of the departed on Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

In one corner of the cemetery a woman called Margarita is buried and is the subject of devoted worship. Margarita was murdered by her husband who cut her body into pieces, some of which were never recovered. Since she was interred in the cemetery people claim she has performed several miracles and judging by the crowds at her tomb there are plenty of miracles people want her to perform for them.

Crowds in Sucre’s cemetery, Todos Santos, Bolivia
Relatives gather by the grave of the deceased, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia
Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia
Crowds leaving the cemetery, Todos Santos, Sucre, Bolivia

The following day, November 2nd, was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and people retreat to their homes to pray for the souls of their relatives. Friends and family are invited to visit the house to pray and much food and drink are taken…of which, more later.

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