LIMA, Peru — With the magical sound of wooden flutes, the scent of incense, and the warm Andean sun making shadow patterns across the rolling hills, this event has all the hallmarks of a happy, festive occasion. Families spread out picnics; strolling musicians and vendors sell cotton candy, toys, flowers and food.
But this celebration is taking place in a cemetery, el Cementerio de Nueva Esperanza, one of the largest cemeteries in the world. And the event is the Day of the Dead, celebrated throughout Latin America each Nov. 1, a day after American kids go trick-or-treating for Halloween.
It’s a day when families from across Peru congregate in the gigantic graveyard in Lima to connect with their ancestors, and many even spend the night here.
While Day of the Dead is most famously observed in Mexico, it’s also an important holiday in Peru and neighboring Bolivia, where traditions honoring the dead predate Catholicism. The Incas honored their ancestors by displaying their mummies in a prominent place and sharing a meal and liquor with them. A shaman would be called upon to communicate with them and bring blessings from the relatives back to the living.
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The observance at the cemetery includes a procession honoring Santa Muerte, a female folk saint, originating in Mexico, the saint of death. A grim reaper-like skeletal figure dressed in a long robe, she is associated with healing, protection and the afterlife, and represents the mummies once honored by native people.
An altar with a sculpture of the bony lady, flanked by flowers, incense and candles, is carried by four to six men through the cemetery while crowds follow. Colectivo Intinarte, a Lima artist cooperative that was founded in 2008, organizes the fiesta of Santa Muerte. The statue is made primarily of maguey, an Amazonian jungle plant related to agave.
Paul Naveda, a shaman, presides over a ritual called a despacho ceremony at the altar, with offerings to spirits and a blessing. He belts out several cries that sound like the call of the condor to invite spirits to join the celebration with the living.
The statue is carried though the graveyard’s snaking dirt paths and up steep terrain, led by the shaman and flanked by musicians. Nearby, puppeteers and jugglers perform. It has the feel of Mardi Gras or a New Orleans jazz funeral.
John Alvarado Palomino, one of the event’s organizers, says Lima’s modern Day of the Dead is a mix of traditions. “Mexico marks the holiday as a way of honoring the dead,” he said. “But in Peru, we also call upon the ancient customs from the Andean people and the magic of Amazonians.”
At sundown, the altar is disassembled and trucked away. The moon begins to rise. Across the cemetery, a wave of flickering candles and twinkling lights blankets the landscape, illuminating the tombs where families will spend the night communing with their ancestors.