Life in a Guatemalan
Indian Village

By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University

As it was observed by the author in the year 1941.

Chapter Four
Death and The Hereafter

Sickness is combated with patent medicines, herbal remedies, and, in some cases, by prayer and special rites carried out by a shaman. Doctors are not available except at great expense and travel, although the central government supplies some medicines—such as a preparation to drive out intestinal worms, a common affliction of children.

Death is usually attributed to natural causes but is sometimes ascribed to the "malice" of evil neighbors, to "fright" induced by a malicious supernatural power, or to witchcraft. Children may also die of "evil-eye" or because of quarreling parents. In the latter case, avenging ancestral spirits punish the children for the sins of their fathers. The hoot of an owl or the prowling of a cat on the roof over a sick person is construed as an omen of impending death.

 In a Procession  the men and women walk separately. The women cover their heads with handwoven perrajes (shawls) with designs destinctive for San Pedro la Laguna. Photo: Benjamin Paul 1941.

1. The Funeral

Burial is performed within hours after death. If death occurs during the night, the body is interred the following day. As soon as a person dies, a specialist is summoned to clean the body and dress it for burial. Old people, who are often resigned to the eventuality of death, purchase their wooden coffins in advance. Coffin construction provides the major source of income for the village carpenter. Relatives mourn over the body; neighbors bring candles to burn near the coffin and are given rum to drown their grief. Members of the cofradía organization dig the grave and bear the coffin to the cemetery, a trail of mourners following in their wake. The shrieks of anguish grow louder as the body is lowered into the deep grave. Female relatives particularly are moved to wail and keen, sometimes flinging themselves upon the coffin as it nears the cemetery, especially if the deceased is their father. More restraint is shown at the funeral of a child. Some say that excessive crying delays the child's soul in its journey to heaven.

Before the coffin is covered by the cofradía attendants, each member of the mourning party kisses a handful of fresh earth and flings it into the opening. Women attendants bring jars of water from the lake to moisten the earth over the grave. The bereaved continue to drink after returning from the cemetery.

While the death of a relative evokes genuine lamentation, there is widespread but hidden fear of the spirit that has the body. "Spirit," synonymous with "soul," is conceived as a fluttering dove invisible to mortals. Many gestures are made to assure the rapid departure of the spirit from the village and to placate the soul as insurance against its future return to plague the living. Intimate items such as sandals, a pipe, or a rum bottle, if the deceased was a heavy drinker, are placed in the coffin. Otherwise the man's spirit might return home and frighten people.

The leader of every funeral precession bears a standard depicting white skull-and-cross-bones on black background. This standard is thought to entice the spirit away from the scene of death. Those who bring candles for the coffin say they do so to assure the spirit of their good intentions in order to avert possible misunderstanding and supernatural retaliation. Kissing the earth at the grave is done for the same reasons. Throwing water on the grave packs down the soil and renders it less accessible to werewolves and other dark forces that may be attracted by the corpse.

At various way stations leading to the cemetery, the funeral party halts while prayers are offered by the native priest. Four stops are made on leaving the house, one at the doorway, one in the yard, one on entering the street, and one at the first street comer. If the deceased is a village elder or an elder's wife, additional prayer-stops are made along the route and in the church. Mourners place pennies on the coffin at every stop. For every money offering, a paternoster is recited by the acting priest who uses the collection to purchase incense and other ritual necessities. But the contributors feel that the essence of the proffered pennies ascends with the soul to purchase its release from a place corresponding to purgatory, but called "jail" by some and "Jerusalem" by others. Prayers and offerings increase 'with the importance of the person whose body is being carried to its final rest.

"Velorio" (Wake). Painting by Mario González Chavajay, 1993. Collection: Arte Maya T'zutuhil.

A. Fused Traditions. San Pedro culture represents a union of indigenous and early Spanish influences. Both influences are discernible in most aspects of the culture but not in the form of separate elements existing side by side. Rather the two traditions have merged in the course of four hundred years to form a culture pattern. The case is similar to that of a child who resembles both its parents yet has a personality and appearance differing from either. Fusion of the two historical streams can be seen in the practices and beliefs surrounding burial. Candies and coffins, pennies and paternosters, hark back to a European heritage; but their symbolic value is a creation of San Pedro culture. The conception of judgment in heaven is adapted to mirror the pattern of justice in the village.

Just as the living person is treated, so the soul is judged and then jailed for its sins. Unable to pay the fine, the soul must suffer the burden of heavy toil. The more money mourners contribute, the sooner the sentence of the soul is commuted. Grateful for his release the spirit repays his living relatives by pleading their cause before the divine powers that manage the destinies of men.

To make assurance doubly sure, wealthier families arrange a special rite several years after the death of an important relative. This ritual is conducted in church by the local priestly delegate. A candle is lighted not only for the deceased head of the family but for every dead relative whose name can be recalled. For every candle, a penny is contributed and a paternoster recited. This is also done before a final cluster of anonymous candles to make certain that the family does not inadvertently incur the wrath of slighted spirits summoned to the ceremony by the church bells that resound during the entire course of the services.

Since this follows Catholic practice, the shaman attends but does not officiate in church. Nevertheless his prior services are indispensable. Counting off tile Maya day-names on his fingers, he selects a propitious day for the ceremony. On t the eve of the event he conducts private services at the home of the family, purifying the candles by carefully washing, them in sanctified water. Failure to wash a single candle could result in the blindness or deafness of a household member. The shaman prays to the ancestral spirits and to all the religious and occult powers at his command. In a long "bill of particulars," he requests that the living heirs be spared sickness, injury, disaster, and the like. Drinks are passed around before and after, but not during, services in church.

The shaman is repaid by generous gifts of ceremonial food, the lay-priest by the pennies he collects. The spirit of the money hastens the ancestor's release from "jail" and he, in turn, sees that the requests of the pious relatives are granted. The liberated soul may even communicate his gratitude in a dream experienced by one of the dead man's relatives. Through dreams, ancestral guardians can also indicate displeasure over the sale of family property or bickering among brothers over their share of the inheritance.

"Perdida del vendedor por encuentro alma saliendo de la mujer enferma" (Losses of a salesman who encountered the soul leaving the body of a sick woman. Painting by Diego Isaias Hernández Mendez, 2014.

B. Spirits of the Dead. At best, spirits of the dead can help the living by withholding misfortune. If they interfere on earth, it is usually to bring illness or suffering. In general, the best ancestor is one who stays away. But despite all precautions to lure the spirit from the house when the body leaves, it is thought that the soul hovers about the area for some days before withdrawing. It cannot leave until it has gathered up all the nail pairings, the hair, the spittle, and all the other bodily substances discarded during its lifetime. It must traverse all the paths and repeat all the trips made before soul and body separated. This is the reason given for not spitting into a deep ravine or over the sides of a canoe into the lake. Such careless acts impose extra burdens on the self-collecting spirit. Similar reasons are sometimes given for staying close to the village rather than embarking on distant trips. In fact, however, this notion does not seem to act as a serious deterrent. For the most part people bend to necessity and are less concerned with averting magical consequences than with discerning causes retrospectively when trouble is upon them.

Stigma attaches to violent death. Bodies of those who die by drowning or accident, or by murder or suicide (both extremely rare), are buried without ceremony and in haste. They are transported on a special rack and placed in the grave face-downward. It is believed that there is something unclean and dangerous about them and their spirits are a peril to the living. This attitude is well illustrated by the following story.

A few years before the writer arrived in San Pedro the recovered body of a drowned man was buried beneath a cross near the scene of the tragedy. Each night at the stroke of eight, his spirit appeared to molest the wife he had deserted before he died. As he approached her house, he made a sound, "tin-tin-tin." He stopped at the door. The frightened woman asked, "What are you after, you good-for-nothing? You never worked when you were alive. You abandoned me and my children. Because of your indolence you drowned. Stay away or I will keep you away by burning chili in the pathway." He haunted her for a week and then disappeared, probably into the lake, for the spirits of men who die by violence are debarred from heaven, staying close to the scene of the accident. Villagers avoid such haunted spots.

The dead are commemorated on All Soul's Day, which falls on November 2, according to Catholic custom. In San Pedro this ceremony extends over three days beginning the first of November, when all families set out baskets of cooked food in the center of their homes for the benefit of the visiting spirits. The offering consists of roasting ears, sweet potatoes, vegetable pears, and other freshly-picked fruit of the field. The church bells ring loudly at midday to summon the spirits of the dead who feast on the aroma of the food which is later eaten by the living. Later, relatives set out candles on the graves of their departed, contributing pennies as the lay priest intones a prayer for every soul, moving from grave to grave in a cemetery brought to life by the dancing lights of a thousand candles.

"Vista del Perros del Día de los Difuntos. Barriletes con Espiritus Levantados por el Aroma del Incencio" (What dogs see during the Day of the Dead: Kites with spirits that have been awakened by the aroma of incense.) Painting by Diego Isaias Hernández Mendez, 2014. Collection: Arte Maya Tz'utujil.

2. The Web of Meaning

The formal aspects of the fiesta for the dead, the things most readily observed by an outsider, bear the strong imprint of Spanish influence. In other areas of cultural behavior, as in farming techniques, the formal aspect predominantly reflects the persistence of native practices. Midway between these extremes stand such cultural features as house construction, which in San Pedro exhibits both native and Spanish influences in about equal proportion. But the core of a culture lies behind the formal acts that meet the eye, hidden in the minds and hearts of those who carry on their culture. Unlike the visible form, the core of meaning associated with houses or cultivation or rituals for the dead defies an attempt to evaluate the proportions of Spanish and Indian ingredients.

The web of meaning that binds acts and objects into a system of subjective values is not spun out of thin air, however. It is woven from the stuff of history, the experiences of successive generations in adjusting the two strands of their historical tradition to each other, and to the demands of their social and physical environment. This pattern, or "design for living," undergoes continuous and imperceptible change. On the one hand it is a force for conservatism, screening and reworking novel influences to fit them into the existing pat- tern. On the other hand, the pattern slowly reshapes itself in response to new pressures, like the symmetrical image in a gently jostled kaleidoscope. As the lives of the villagers become increasingly involved in national affairs under the present regime in Guatemala, and as new techniques of production and revitalized education take hold in San Pedro, the value system of the village will transform itself accordingly but without relinquishing the imprint of past experience.