While funerals are customary ways to say goodbye to the dead around the world, there are many more meaningful ways that people bid adieu to their loved ones. In Latin America, several of these practices are an equal mix of mourning and celebrating life.
In Mexico and parts of Central America, there’s Día de Muertos. In Paraguay, it’s San la Muerte. In Barranquilla, Colombia, it involves a carnival character named Joselito. For Catholics throughout Latin America, it’s the rezos de la novena. How we say goodbye to and honor our dead matters as much, if not more, as the death itself. These beautiful, sometimes larger-than-life commemorations are so fascinating that they’ve even inspired movies like Coco and Gabriel García Márquez’s Los funerales de mamá grande.
In honor of National Grief Awareness Day, here are five unique ways Latin Americans pay respect to their dead.
San la Muerte
San la Muerte is a folk saint, mainly found in Paraguay and northeast Argentina. Although Latinos are still overwhelmingly Catholic – the Church considers San la Muerte a pagan practice – many believe the saint is actually part of their devotion to Catholicism. The worshiping of San la Muerte usually consists of asking the saint for requests in exchange for prayers and offerings. Devotees usually leave their statue to a living relative once they’re gone. The saint also has its own festival throughout Latin America, which is celebrated in August.
Día de Muertos
Día de Muertos is one of the most common practices in Latin America, celebrated from October 31 to November 2. In Mexico, it involves setting an altar filled with food and pictures of the deceased to guide the souls of the dead back home. In other parts of Central America, it takes a slightly different form. In Nicaragua, for instance, it’s a day spent cleaning and decorating the graves of loved ones.
Some scholars have traced the origins of Día de Muertos to the Aztecs, who had a similar holiday dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. But regardless of the beginnings, the day is rich with memorabilia, prayers, and rituals.
Extreme embalming isn’t necessarily a tradition, but it’s a practice that’s become quite trendy in the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, there have been two famous funerals that featured extremely embalmed bodies – one standing up and another on a motorcycle. Some have said that this allows families to celebrate their dead as they were in real life instead of focusing on their departure.
In Barranquilla, residents mourn a fictional character during carnival. Joselito is a regular man, who drinks too much during the festival and is symbolically buried at the end of the festivities. The catch is he’s not actually dead and was only temporarily wiped out by alcohol. Festival goers usually parade a casket — sometimes with an actual human inside — to symbolically bury Joselito.
Rezos de la novena
For Catholics, the nine days after a funeral are key for their dearly departed to ascend to heaven. Los rezos de la novena are usually public or private prayers that take place for nine days, regardless of the occasion. But when a relative dies, la novena becomes a space for asking God to protect their relative in the after life. Latinos usually make this a family gathering with snacks, non-alcoholic drinks involved, and elaborate decorations.