HECELCHAKAN, Mexico – Every year in preparation for the Day of the Dead, members of the Pomuch community in southeastern Mexico extract bones from their niches and carefully clean them – a tradition seen as a gesture of love and a way to get closer to deceased family members.
“It’s a tradition we’ve observed for many years with our late grandparents and great-grandparents,” Ruth Ek Chin, an inhabitant of this Mayan community in Campeche state, told EFE.
The white walls of the Pomuch cemetery are full of colorful niches adorned with flowers for the occasion. There the locals carefully clean what they call “the holy remains.”
During the process, which can be done for the first time when a person has been dead for three years, there are those who greet their dear ones and speak with them.
The process is a complete ritual. Small bones are cleaned first, followed by the medium and large ones, with brushes and white cloths used for the cleaning but without any water or other liquid.
Once the beloved bones are ready, they are placed in a wooden box, leaving the skull in the upper part, Jose Cevastian Yam Poot, promoter of the Pomuch culture, told EFE.
Besides being cleaned, every year the dead get a “change of clothing,” which means the white cloth is changed on which the bones are placed.
This piece of cloth has different prints, such as flowers and crosses, depending on the taste for which the departed was known. Formerly the pictures on the cloths were embroidered by hand or machine, but today most are painted.
Cleaning the bones “is a way of expressing love toward the family, a kind of meeting between those who are gone and those who are still here alive,” Jose said.
It is also a tradition full of “respect,” and those who take part in it “cannot behave just any way they choose.”
Members of the community said that the exhumations do not “frighten” them at all. Ruth said that her daughter, for example, isn’t scared by the idea, and even says “mom, when you die I’ll come and clean your little bones.”
The cultural promoter said that. “like most traditions, the cleaning ritual was previously performed by the whole village, but as time passed, the custom has been lost somewhat.”
It is mainly the adults and the elderly who perform the ritual, though there are young people who also take part because it’s something they have had drummed into them, even as little children.
In Pomuch, Oct. 31 is dedicated to paying tribute to children, to those who died when they were little.
Nov. 1 is dedicated to adults, while Nov. 2 is All Saints Day, when people flock to the cemetery with flowers.