Modification of the concept of death

Funeral agencies and cremations have increased because wakes are no longer held at home. If before the good death was at home, now it is in the hospital. Among the Mayas, the dead are an essential part of the world of the living.

Modification of the concept of death
The ancient Mayan city of Palenque, one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in the world. Photo by Crisoforo Gaspar Hernandez / Unsplash

Unlike the ancient Maya, who considered death as part of life, nowadays we do not want to know anything about it and, even more, we are going through a crisis of rituals in all senses, said Luis Fernando Núñez Enríquez, from the Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA) of the UNAM.

Funeral rituals are aimed at helping the living not to have such a hard time when facing the loss of a loved one, and to find in certain practices and words the consolation to overcome it. However, we are now running out of rites to help.

From pre-Hispanic times to the present, there have been fundamental changes in this matter, which began with the introduction of Christianity after the Conquest, but which have not stopped over the centuries. The most recent is the result of the then North American Free Trade Agreement and globalization.

"One of the aspects in which we were still quite conservative was in the matter of our dead, with those ideas that came from colonial times. Many of us had to witness wakes at home, with the women of the family cleaning and dressing the deceased, but in a short time that began to change," he said.

There used to be few funeral agencies and funeral homes, which today are proliferating. Concepts and practices from our northern neighbors have been introduced, and one of the main ones has been to take the dead out of our homes.

If before the good death was at home, now it is in the hospital, even if the dying person wishes to stay in bed. It is the relatives who decide that the death takes place in another place, in an attempt to extend the existence, even if the person is over 90 years old, or out of fear; the same happens with wakes. And for this to happen, there did not even have to be a change of generation; the conception of death and the relationship we have with it has been modified.

The number of cremations has also increased, a fact that was inconceivable until the last century because the Catholic Church prohibited them until its Council of 1962. In the last 30 years, this form of treatment of the dead has increased and it is related to the fact that there is no more space in the cemeteries of Mexico City.

The numbers grew even more with the pandemic. According to data from the Compilation of Information on Public Cemeteries in the Metropolitan Areas of the country 2021, from INEGI, in 2019 13,831 corpses were cremated, while in 2020 it was a total of 29,187, with an increase of 111 percent.

In the case of people who are buried in a municipal cemetery, they can only remain buried for seven years; after that time the relatives must go for the remains. When that moment arrives, "we do not know what to do, we do not have a ritual prepared for that moment", insisted Luis Núñez.

The tombs of Palenque

In the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in the world is the most elaborate burial site in Mesoamerica, the researcher stressed. "One of its glories is to have one of the most spectacular royal burial chambers and monolithic sarcophagi, unique in the whole area".

Alberto Ruz has consecrated in the world archeology thanks to the discovery of Pakal's tomb, in 1952; and in 1994, his counterpart Arnoldo González Cruz found the Red Queen, who was later known to be the wife of that king and mother of two important rulers. Majestic funerary monuments were built for these fundamental characters.

Of course, these are not the only tombs. On that site have been counted, since the end of the XVIII century, around 250 tombs belonging to the rulers, but also the common people, detailed the university professor.

"In Palenque and other sites, such as Piedras Negras (Guatemala), sometime after the biological death occurred, there are entries to the tombs to, for example, paint the bones and even take them out and use them in some ceremony. Afterward, they are stored again". That was the case of Pakal, whose remains were painted red. Of this we have references and physical evidence commented the archaeologist.

In the burials of the common people, if there are no great monuments, there is a series of those ritual elements of contact with the dead: they put them in special places inside the houses. "We are finding that they used sarcophagi built with panels of cut stones."

It is also recorded that, after the decomposition of the bodies, there is interaction with the remains. "We see a cult for the dead that is on everyone's mind, that everyone practices." Although the hierarchs have large funerary monuments and other types of interaction with beings from beyond, at the ritual level, the beliefs, feelings, and attitudes of rulers and ruled are very similar. Here the dead are an essential part of the community of the living, they form an indissoluble unit, the expert emphasized.

Núñez Enríquez explained that, together with his colleagues, in Palenque, they have found the so-called "problematic deposits" because they are a great number of materials that is difficult to explain, in a single place or room.

"In Group IV of Palenque, where we carried out excavations, deposits have appeared with remains of what could have been a great banquet; we have the crockery in which the food was prepared, pots, ladles, plates, fuels, seeds, and a lot of fauna that was eaten: remains of fish, turtles or small mammals. It is frequent that human remains appear with the same treatment as the animals, that is to say, that they were also eaten," he added.

Such discoveries are interpreted as indications of massive parties with a lot of food and drink, in the framework of the re-entry of the skeleton to the grave; even, "they were more important celebrations than when they left the deceased for the first time".

The moment of death marks a transitional phase that can take several years, from the slow decomposition of the corpse to the obtaining of clean bones; when the latter occurred, the Maya lifted the rules of mourning and mourning. Then, the remains are no longer dangerous: they are bones that can be reintegrated into the community.

In the southeast, the expert explained, we still have reminiscences of these practices; one of them, the best known, is what happens in the community of Pomuch, Campeche, when the Day of the Dead approaches and, in the cemetery, people take the skeletons of their relatives out of their niches to clean them.

The remains are taken to the houses so that they can "see" if there is anything new; if someone is getting married or if a new member of the family was born, it is time to introduce them to the family. Then, they return them to the cemetery. "That's very similar to what we find archaeologically."

It is so because it is considered that the deceased helps prosperity; "it is assumed that the dead are still there, in the house, and not only on November 2, when the link between the world of the living and the deceased is stronger. This is common among the Mayas and most of the indigenous communities of what was Mesoamerica: Nahua, Huastec, Mixtec, etc.", he concluded.