A Day for the Dead in Lima

I had the fortune today of spending a beautiful day celebrating Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) at Cementerio Nueva Esperanza, one of the largest cemeteries in Latin America. We weren’t lucky enough to witness this talented band below play live, but it was moving nonetheless to be surrounded by such personal moments of reflection and community coming together. It’s amazing how such distant cultures around the world share the same universal practices.

I was surprised by how young most of the deceased were at their time of death. Many of the buried were infants and children under five. As it turns out, Peru’s life expectancy has increased by an average of five years per decade over the past 50 years. (By contrast, the US has increased at 1/5 the pace.) In other words, in 1970, the average Peruvian only lived to be 53 years old. Compare that to 75 years old in 2014. What an achievement in less than two generations.

That said, like most of my experiences in Peru, even the celebration of the dead was characterized by the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots. Those with means were buried lower, had brightly-painted cemented tombs, fresh food and flowers, and live bands and/or pastors. The rest laid further uphill, surrounded by modest gray stones and shrubs. Some were in utter disrepair and covered entirely by dried branches.

That’s not even counting the oddness of the fact that shacks inhabited by the poor occupied the hills just beyond the graves. Given the same size and color, it was hard to tell where the dead ended and where life began.

At one point, I came across yet another tomb in utter disrepair. Branches were strewn all over and half of the cross was dangerously close to falling off. It was such a sad sight. Yet, as I came closer, I noticed a cheap plastic cup filled with tiny, half-wilted red flowers set against the head of the tomb.

Obviously, someone had come to visit, even though they had next to nothing.

It was a sign of love, no matter how little they could bring, no matter how little time they had outside of work and more work. At the end of the day, honoring memories of loved ones is not about demonstrating love through material decorations, but rather about keeping someone in your heart.

As the song goes, sé que siempre estarán a mi lado.

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