Home » Peri-Trip » Saturday in San Pedro part 2: Thoughts from a Desert Cemetery

Saturday in San Pedro part 2: Thoughts from a Desert Cemetery

Now I will continue my recounting of our Saturday in San Pedro de Atacama from where we left off, which is hauling ourselves, dripping and shivering, from the hot spring and back to Incahuasi B&B. After some welcome hot showers and lunch, we went exploring in downtown San Pedro de Atacama. If you’re new here, you can click here to start reading my adventure from the beginning.

As I’ve mentioned before, the town is adorably small. We went for a guided tour in the local arqueological museum, called the Museo Arqueológico R. P. Gustavo Le Paige for the founder of the museum. It is dedicated to preserving and educating visitors about the pre-colombian Atacamaño culture and so we saw some interesting artifacts that were explained to us by our very knowledgeable guide.

After the museum we went for a stroll through the local cemetery. It is the only cemetery in town, and has been serving the population for at least a hundred years based on the dates I saw on grave markers although many of the older graves were marked only with plain wooden crosses so it could be much older.

This cemetery is a bit different from any others I’ve visited, and much different from others in Chile (click here to see my Cementerio General de Santiago post). For one, as I’ve mentioned, many graves did not bear any identifying information, just simple painted crosses of various sizes. Isa, our program director, pointed out that in a town this small, you know exactly where your loved ones are laid to rest. For another, this cemetery follows an ancient Atacamenian tradition of also marking the graves with a small mound of earth. Besides the ground burials there were several above-ground mausoleums, a few of which were modeled after the style of homes in the pueblo.

Walking around the cemetery as the setting sun cast long orange rays of light over the little mounds and cement slabs, I considered, as I had in the Cementerio General, how the way we treat our dead reflects many of the attitudes, values, and culture of the living. I have long held the opinion that death rituals are not for the dead but for the living; we make sense of the terrible but necessary phenomenon of death through the lens of traditions.

Here in this little cemetery the dead were surrounded by obvious signs of care from the living they had left behind. Almost all of the plaques and crosses were obviously handmade, the same hands that once held and hugged the deceased carefully etched the letters of their names into wood or concrete or clay. There were some with spelling errors in the names of the months, evidence of poor rural education in decades past. All of the graves were carefully maintained, even the anonymous ones were free of debris.

Many of the graves had these little glass-fronted cubbies filled with photos, souvenirs, candles, and other mementos of the things that the deceased had enjoyed in life. Even graves from decades ago had recent offerings, I saw a family lovingly reorganizing the cubby of a deceased family member which laughing and sharing stories. We heard an 8-bit rendition of Fleur de Lis repeating over and over again from a musical mother’s day card propped open to show a message of love. On one grave, weighed down with a pebble, was a carefully folded note written on notebook paper in what seemed to be a teenage girl’s handwriting that read “For you because I miss you Uncle” on the front. I was curious but I didn’t pick it up, the words inside were clearly not meant for any eyes on this earth.

This cemetery spoke volumes of the love of a community for its members that had been whisked away into the arms of oblivion, expressed through handmade gifts and remembrances and care. I think there is something extremely healthy about this practice for a society. In realizing these works of love the living are able to open conversations about death, ask questions of themselves and others, accept and demystify the cultural and social processes of death.

In our culture, that is to say the United States culture, I think that we have put an unhealthy distance between death and ourselves. I am not by any means trying to say that we do not grieve the loss of our loved ones any less, that the sting of having someone you cared about wrenched from our loving embrace is any less terrible, or that we love those who have left us any less. However, I do think that in our industrialization of death we deny ourselves the opportunity to openly converse about death, to accept it and understand it as best as we can. In the United States, we pay an average of about $6,500 for strangers to wash, dress, embalm, layout, and bury our loved ones (NFDA). We then pay for their graves to be maintained, the grass cut and fertilized and the trash and dead leaves kept clear. We pay for laser-cut headstones and etched cremation urns and factory made stainless steel caskets.

We pay through the nose to keep our hands off because we are afraid of death, and I would propose that we are afraid of death BECAUSE we keep our hands off. In the San Pedro de Atacama cemetery, there is evidence all around of the loving hands that have worked to keep the memory and respect of the dead alive, and in my opinion evidence of a healthy understanding and acceptance of death. I believe we have much to learn, and I hope to see more hands-on funeral practices in the future in the US as we move toward a healthier mentality about the Great Unknown.

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One thought on “Saturday in San Pedro part 2: Thoughts from a Desert Cemetery

  1. Abby,
    Your dad and I play music together, and he pointed me to this entry. I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful reflections on death rituals and the ways that different cultures define a space for the deceased which reflects the society’s attitudes and comfort level with mortality. I want to recommend a book I read long ago (one of the few I actually read all the way through) that had a big impact on the way I looked at life and death. “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker–it’s pretty cool!

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