Bolivia Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – Bolivian Holidays
Dia de los Muertos (or Dia de los Difuntos) means Day of the Dead, which in the Catholic faith is also known as All Souls Day. In Bolivia it takes place on November 2 after the celebration of Todos Santos (All Saints Day) on November 1st.
Prior to this day, both the public and the city governments begin preparing the cemeteries for this holiday. Usually the city governments begin cleaning and fumigating the cemeteries while individuals and families hire bricklayers and painters to repair and paint individual tombs and family niches.
On Dia de los Muertos indigenous customs mix with Christian (Catholic) religious beliefs. Families visit the tombs of their dead with a feast, which they prepare the night before. They spread out the feast in the form of a picnic, setting places for their dead relative at the “table” as they wait for the souls of the dead to “arrive”. If the dead person is a child, a white tablecloth is used. Black or dark cloth is used if the dead is an adult. The table is also adorned with candles and photos of the dead. Some believe the dead return to Earth to see if they are still being remembered by their families and friends.
Often families hire bands or take other forms of music with them. They also pay children to recite prays at the tombs. Many believe God takes pity on the prayers of children or the poor, more than on the prayers of those who are not in need. Families sometimes also sing or hire someone to sing.
Many people don’t take the feast to the cemetery. Instead, they spread out a feast at home and guests who visit are offered all the favorite foods of the dead.
Many believe death is not separated from life. So they await the dead to show themselves. It is said the dead arrive at noon, and depart at the same time the next day so at noon on the next day, another great feast is held because the dead need a lot of energy to return to their world. Anything out of the ordinary that takes place during the feast is taken as a sign that the dead have arrived (even the landing of a fly on food can be thus interpreted).
The dead are always present but on this particular day, they either come down from heaven to join their families, or rise to heaven. November is springtime and also planting season on Bolivia. The rainy season begins and gardens and trees begin to bloom.
In Western Bolivia, according to Andean indigenous beliefs, the “table” is usually set in three levels: the Alaxpacha (heaven), the Ak’apacha (earth), and the Mank’apacha (hell). The preferred foods of the dead are taken into account when preparing this feast and the foods are set out in a certain order respecting the ecological layers in which they are produced (sky, earth, underground) as indicated above.
Many of the Andean cultures belief in the importance of reciprocity. The living feed the dead, whose bones are drying under the November sun, and the dead intervene with the earth to ensure she provides rains, which begin in mid-November, and eventual harvests are abundant.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the dead (who at the time were embalmed) were taken out of their tombs. Friends and family members would dance with them, walk them around the cemetery, eat a meal with them and then put them back in their tombs. When the Spanish arrived they forbade this ritual. So today, a family member often dresses up to look like a dead family member and appears at the family reunion at the grave. He or she takes part in the feast that has been prepared and asks how the family has been over the past year. Sometimes the “dead” person gives advice to the children. When the day ends, the children take palm fronds and chase the person in the costume out of the cemetery just to be sure the soul of the real dead person doesn’t give in to the temptation of inhabiting their body in order to remain among the living.
Another important ritual is the baking of tantawawas which are sweet breads made into various different shapes. Some of the breads are shaped into babies (wawas) and faces are either decorated onto the breads or little clay heads and faces are baked into the bread. In addition, other breads are shaped like ladders (so the souls of the dead can climb up to heaven), stars, crosses, or angels with wings to help children and babies to rise to heaven.