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.