Wednesday, December 15, 2010


This year we were invited by a Mexican Catholic family to share a meal with them at the grave site of family members. This was a small cemetery in rural Mexico, approachable only by a quite rough road and many of the graves were set among the trees. About 25 friends and family gathered for a meal of mole con pollo, corundas and the usual round of tequila.

I was struck by the antiquity of this Christian tradition. Before the birth of Christ the dominant belief among Romans and Greeks was that the corpse was defiled and to be avoided, thus burials were handled by “experts” and took place at some distance from the community. However, it was not unusual for family members to make the trek to the grave site and to share a picnic. After the death of Christ it became more common for people to gather and eat with the dead. Approximately 1000 years ago the Pope decreed that the spirits of the dead returned to earth on November 2, beginning at 12:01AM on the morning of the second. It is for this reason that Mexicans and many others spend the night in the grave yard and decorate their homes in order to help those spirits find their way home and to make them comfortable. In a few communities this tradition is carried on during the day rather than at night. Graves are cleaned and decorated to various degrees and families gather to eat with the dead. For some reason North America has transformed this day into an event that is supposed to frightening with witches and goblins. How did that happen?

During our meal with the dead there was no reference to the dead and in fact we sat slightly away from the grave to avoid the heat of the sun. However, the belief is that the dead are indeed at the scene, so are with you. You are eating with the dead. However, I did not see a plate set for the spirit. (However, many graves to do have food set out for the spirits.)

There is of course vast cultural differences among the peoples of the world in terms of their treatment of the dead. As noted some build cemeteries at some distance from the town (towns often sprawl so that they became more central) while others place them in the very centre of the village housing In yet others the bones of the dead are buried under the bed of the survivor. In the early Christian church it was traditional to build the church over the grave of a saint, preferably putting the alter directly above. In quite old churches it is common to find significant community members buried under the church floor and if possible to have the bones of the venerated within the church itself.

This seems related to the literal or symbolic act of eating the dead. Sharing the body of Christ during communion or actually eating the dead to retain the sacred quality of that person. Not too different than hunters an gatherers who placed great value on eating the heart or the eyes of an animal. These parts were believed to transfer powers to the hunter and to others. In Canada the head of state, while visiting Inuit peoples in the north, was offered a portion of the warm heart of a seal. She ate it as though accustomed to the act and created much conversation. What was intended as a spiritual act became a political act. Was she supporting the rights of the Inuit to hunt seals and sell their furs?

(NOTE: the references to history come from Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love.)

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