Take Back the Dead

My fourteen-month-old daughter’s favorite animals are turtles. So much so that it’s fairly common for her to wake up in the morning, open her eyes and say “tortuga” (that or “pizza”, another favorite). So when we saw a massive turtle in the courtyard at the gym where her father works out (because that’s what buildings have here in Granada, Nicaragua, instead of lobbies; interior courtyards with palm trees and turtles), and one of the enviably fit trainers suggested that we might like to feed the vast animal, we thought it was a great idea. The trainer pulled a handful of leaves off of a nearby tree, and I held one out one to the turtle, who opened her giant pink mouth and snapped it shut greedily, guzzling away.

Amalia was not delighted.

In fact, she burst into tears. But she was also too fascinated to move far from the turtle’s enclosure. So she just stood there, sobbing “tortuga! tortuga!” Finally her papi explained that to the tortugas, the leaves were like cookies, another one of her favorites  (although she insists they’re called “cookas”). She calmed down right away, now that this scary sight was related to the realm of things she understood and enjoyed.

I remembered the Tortuga Incident a few days later when we went to the local cemetery for All Soul’s Day, also known as the Day of the Dead. It’s a national holiday in Nicaragua, where schools are closed and businesses only work a half day so that people can spend the afternoon in the cemetery, cleaning off the graves of their deceased loved ones and adorning them with flowers.

As we approached the cemetery, along with what seemed like the rest of Nicaragua (in fact, we met people my husband knew both coming and going), vendors were selling flowers for the dead and candy for the living, and we could hear hymns being sung by worshipers gathered outside the graveyard’s church, a neoclassical building that resembles a Greek temple.

I photographed crypts crowned by statues of angels unfolding their wings, thinking, “this is a beautiful cemetery”. And then I realized, it may be the most beautiful cemetery, or at least the loveliest one I’ve seen, not just because of the marble angels taking flight and the flowers being scattered everywhere, but because of its setting.

When I turned to take a picture of a particularly ornate grave, next to which stood a young man selling sno-cones, I realized that both the ice-cream man and the grave were backed by Mombacho, the volcano that looms over Granada like a sentry. All cemeteries act as a meeting place between the dead and the living, but this one brought a third element into it: along with the physical world and the spiritual world, the natural world is there in the presence of the volcano. Mombacho hasn’t erupted since 1570, so it’s not a menacing sight, and its head is usually in the clouds so it’s probably too distracted to do much damage. But seeing it standing there as it has for centuries was a visual reminder that the world will continue going on long after we’re gone. And the people who survive us will keep right on eating sno-cones.

Instead of being a sobering thought, this actually struck me as a very comforting idea, that the earth, and the dead, and the living sno-cone eaters can all co-exist happily, at least on this day. Death happens but life goes on, sadness happens but someone, somewhere, is eating a sno-cone, and feeling joy. I thought the same thing when I saw Amalia skipping along the graves, holding her babysitter’s hand, as we looked for the graves of Emilio’s ancestors to decorate with flowers. Life goes on, but that doesn’t mean that the living have forgotten. And it made me think that a cemetery should often be filled with children and flowers and singing relatives, so that the dead can be part of the world of the living for a bit, and vice versa.

I’ve recently read a number of articles, like this Op-Ed in The New York Times, arguing that we’ve become too removed from death, which was once a natural part of life. And while I don’t think I want to know too much about the physical particulars of how we die (what can I say? I’m squeamish) I do wish we still had a tradition of picnicking in cemeteries, as earlier Americans did when “garden cemeteries” like Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts first became popular. There’s Memorial Day, but I think many people associate that with barbecues, not visiting their dearly departed. And there’s Halloween, which, it’s no coincidence, happens right around All Soul’s Day; both are related to the Celtic holiday of Samhain, as fall fades into the darkest time of the year and the world of the dead and the world of the living are thought to open up to each other. But Halloween tends to turn death into a joke or a cheap thrill, the hand reaching out of the ketchup-blood-stained t-shirt, or Slasher Flick Part IX.

All Soul’s Day in the cemetery wasn’t an ironic wink at death, nor a ghoulish dwelling on it like a gory movie. It was a chance to remember those who’d moved on to something we can’t yet know, to bring them a  bouquet to show they’d been in our thoughts. I want to go back to the cemetery when it’s less crowded, to find relatives of Emilio’s whose graves we couldn’t locate this time. And I want to come back because I want Amalia to see cemeteries not as frightening, but as places that can remind her of people who enriched her life, just like a turtle chomping on a leaf recalled her own joy in eating a cooka.




Why is this corpse smiling? Because he knows he’ll have lots of visitors on the Day of the Dead.



  1. Trish Dewit says:

    Great article Eleni. We loved that cemetery.

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