On Friday night, Belize City saw hordes of trick-or-treaters swarming the streets, especially on the North Side. Aside from that, the weekend saw Halloween fairs and parties. Indeed, in 2014 Belize has embraced Halloween like never before, mainly because it's fun to get dressed in a costume and for the kids it is a great chance to stock up on sweets by the basket-ful. But while those are commercialized acts of bringing in All-Saint's day, in western Belize, they go deeper: with the cultural and religious practice called Finados. Courtney Weatherburne traveled to Benque Viejo yesterday to find out how Finados is observed.
Courtney Weatherburne reporting
Ecclesiastes 9:5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.And while that's what the Bible says, in Benque Viejo the dead are never forgotten and their rewards come every year on November second with Finados - a religious and cultural observance. That's why these women are praying this morning - to give thanks for the arrival of the souls of their loved ones.
The thought of being surrounded by spirits - whether 'familiar' or not - is quite unsettling for many butto 46 year old Maria Del Carmen Martinez and her family, it is a sacred and beautiful portal to re-connect with her older sister, and to bless her soul.
Maria Del Carmen Martinez - Official Prayer Leader
"it's to welcome her and so that her soul can rest in peace because the process she went through with her sickness - all the suffering she went through, it was very terrible for her. She was a very humble person. She was one of my sisters that were the humblest of all. The doctor told that she was going to die, but you never knew when. It happened on May 2 which was my birthday. That's something that I will never ever forget in my life. At 4 o' clock my sister Sylvia called me and said that my sister had died."
And while she still grieves for her sister, Sylvia Sosa remembers her husband and son:
Sylvia Sosa, Finados for Husband and Son
"I usually light candles from yesterday until the 9 days. My husband passed away in 1998. He was in an accident and my son pass in 2007 and he was 33 years old. He had pneumonia."
Images of their loved ones fill the walls, a vivid expression of their desire to relive their moments of familial joy, tomfooleries and sorrow.
This nostalgic journey is only one way to honor the dead. Families also initiate an elaborate and meticulous process to properly welcome the souls. For Maria it all begins at the break of dawn.
Maria Del Carmen Martinez
"Then like for today November 2, we put the bread with the coffee; one with coffee and the other with coco and then you put in the bread and you out some bread on the table and some I'xpasha because they usually do it early in the morning and they set it. Those are just for the morning and then midday after you pray and everything, you eat something and then they start the preparation for the midday meal. Then you prepare the soup because it's a soup for the day or special dinner that the person you are offering it to use to like."
Apart from the offering of food, special prayers, "Novena De Los Animas" are recited.
Maria Del Carmen Martinez
"Well the repetition of the prayers like asking God and all saints in heaven to come and help the souls in purgatory because actually as our beliefs say they have a process, they just don't go straight to heaven. They have a purgatory to be purified of whatever sins and thing they did on earth, so they need to go through that process and then finally hopefully that they go to heaven."
But, seasoned practitioners say, it is not always a peaceful and sentimental experience. Lore says that the refusal or inability to carry out this ritual has led to frightening outcomes.
Cristina Bejerano (translated)
"A wife tells her husband "Carlito I don't have any money to do my I'xtasha or my Finados and Carlito answers "No money for you, do it on your own." "Okay fine" she says and so they went to sleep and in the night the house started to shake because her husband didn't want to give her money. The next morning of the 1st, her husband finally gave her the money and said "here, buy your things for Finados."...So he had no more headache because he gave his wife money for finados. A lot of people don't believe it, but it is true."
While the families who observe finados welcome the dead into their homes, they also visit their world to complete the ritual, and send them off on their journey to the hereafter.
The farewell is marked by the adornment of tombs with flowers, a type of candle known Veladoras and a decorative fabric. This embrace of the underworld, may seem taboo but according to Cultural Practitioner and Activist, David Ruiz, this practice simply reflects the existing connection between our world and theirs.
David Ruiz, Cultural Practitioner
"Well if we go back to the ancient Mayan, it's something that comes from the cosmo-vision of the Maya; that respect to the ancestors and how the spiritual life intermingles with the material life and it's something that very present also in the Christian culture with the teachings of the catholic church and what Augustine wrote the city of God intermingling with the city of man. The spiritual world it kind of inter-phases with our material world. So it's like both runs parallel and our western/modern thought has separated both. But it's not so, I mean the material world is a reflection of the spiritual world and we are moving towards something and this whole practice - the indigenous people were so good at capturing this and I believe that if we were to recapture that spirituality and that silence in our own life we would be able to also be more in tune with this."
And what about those with no families, the lonely souls whose families have also died or have simply forgotten about them.
"There is a preparation for the "anima sola" that's the lonely soul, really doesn't have anybody to pray. So what people do is like when they are making the "boyus" they would make another one with like the gizzards - the leftover and then they would set that outside the garden on the back yard."
In the end, Finados, like so many other religious and cultural rituals is about coming to terms with death, but in this case practitioners go one step further, they try to reach over to the other side with the best a family can offer, the hunger of memory satisfied with these bounteous offerings. So now the souls will return to their resting place while their families patiently await their next visit.
Finados is celebrated every year on the 1st and 2nd of November. The 1st is All Saints Day, which is set aside for young children or those who have been canonized while the 2nd is All Souls Day for the souls of adults.
Death is a part of life. In fact, in some Mesoamerican cultures, life is described as a dream, and what happens after death is the person’s awakening from that sleep. In Christianity today, we are led to believe that if we do good things and follow Christ, we will go to a beautiful upper world we call heaven.
To the ancient Maya, life and death is represented by the corn god planting the corn, and directly behind him is the death god breaking that corn plant. The ancient Maya believed that when someone passed away, they came upon a river waiting for them. On the river was a canoe with two paddler gods, one in the front and the other in the back, and your place would be in the center. They would then paddle you into a cave and then to your afterlife. In the Yucatan, the Maya believed that you fell down into the opening of a sinkhole that lead the soul to the afterlife. The Maya also described the afterlife, Xibalba, as two places: a place of eternal rest and a place of fright, giving us reason to believe in a heaven and a hell as Christianity describes it, the difference being that for the Maya, both places are under the earth.
Finados is a ritual for remembering the dead, practiced by the Maya and Mestizo cultures in Mesoamerica, but certainly not limited to them, as people of different descent also have this practice. It is performed during All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day, on November 1st and 2nd, respectively. The rituals are a mixture of Maya tradition and Christianity, brought over by the Spanish. Two altars are done, one in the house and another at the cemetery. The altar we observed at the Benque House of Culture was a three level display where every level and every item displayed is symbolic. The lower level represents purgatory, which in Christianity is the lower levels of heaven. The term purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence, where Christ removes the remnants of imperfection. The second level is described as being the earth, and the top represents heaven. We can see the origins of the three level being used by that ancient Maya. The Ceiba tree, being the sacred tree of the Maya, had the similar symbolic representations, with the roots being Xibalba (which is the final resting place but also includes a dark grim place where bad souls go), the stem of the tree representing earth (where we all live) and the branches being a sacred upper world, domain of some powerful gods.
The display at the Benque House of Culture was honoring the soul of Telésforo Guerra Cahn, a man originally from Benque Viejo Del Carmen, who became a lawyer. Although he worked internationally, he never forgot his origins, and he supported the House of Culture in various ways. On the lower level of the altar we find several desserts and treats, such as corn pudding, locally made sweet preserves from papaya, pumpkin and craboo, a local cherry. We were also given a sample of the x’pasha, a porridge made from the purple corn. On the second level we see bollos a traditional dish made of corn dough which is and wrapped in plantain or banana leaf and then steamed. Other personal favorites of the deceased were also displayed, such as fried fish and whiskey. On the uppermost level are a photograph of the departed, a glass of water, salt, copal natural incense and homemade bees wax candles. The glass of water is for the deceased to drink since they will come from a far distance. Salt can help to cleanse, heal and balance energy, while repelling negative vibrations and acting as a potent purifier. Salt can also help to attract positive energy and aids in manifestations. Incense is also used as a purifier, since nothing evil can exist where the copal is burned.
This activity is not fully condoned by the Roman Catholic Church, as it goes against its teachings and it borders blasphemy. There are many references in the Holy Bible as to why this shouldn’t be conducted, (Deuteronomy 18: 9-12) and again in (Leviticus 19:31) “ Do not turn to mediums or seek out spirits for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.” The church accepts that prayers should be said for the dead, which is why on 2nd of November, for All Souls Day, it hosts a Mass at the grave yard. After writing this post, I visited the site where some of my family members are buried in Santa Rita Cemetery, San Ignacio. I took flowers from my own garden for my grandmother and said a prayer. As I looked around, many others were doing the same for their departed family members. Some tombs were lavishly decorated, others more humble.