Tables with the traditional bread and plastic cups of purple juice pave the road to the municipal cemetery. I have never been to the cemetery in Cuenca, Ecuador before. Flower vendors ask me if I want any flowers to take the to dead. I shake my head with a quick smile, and keep walking. I don’t have anyone to give them to. I’m here alone, with my camera and my pen and my notebook, my tools for documenting Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, in the resting place of death itself. I’m here to observe.
It’s past dark, around 8pm, when I arrive at the entrance. A singular vein of road leads in through an elaborate gate. Inside, green fields fan out, dotted with individual gravestones and fenced in by large, stone walls– the walls look like castle fortresses. The walls are covered with square epithets; inside, the bodies are entombed. On each square is a name, an epithet, and two dates: the birth and the death.
Recently, someone told me that Ecuador has rules governing how long a body can be in the municipal cemetery. There are walls for bodies, like the one in front of me, as well as walls for the ashes of those cremated; there are also sepulchers and mausoleums, assumedly for the wealthy, and thousands of grave sites with tombstones.
That same person told me that if a family doesn’t pay for the gravesite, the punishment affects the dead, along with the living. Someone, a caretaker, removes the body of the family’s loved one, and places the remains in a shared gravesite that’s somewhere in this cemetery. All those anonymous bodies–names and dates and epithets forgotten. Perhaps the families continue to visit the shared grave, throwing memories into the abyss of unclaimed corpses and abandoned bones. I don’t know if there are shared grave sites in the United States; I imagine there must be, but I haven’t had much experience with the logistics of dying. I’ve been to four funerals, for four grandparents. As far as I know, two small piles of ash remain in Arizona, and a set of skeletons rests beneath a shared gravestone in Kansas.
The plaques on these stone walls in Cuenca remind me of the plaques at St. Philip’s Church, where my grandparents’ names are etched into tiles. Grandma and Grandpa’s plaque is flat and simple, but here, everything is decorated. Some of the fancier plaques have a cage that emerge from the wall; the cage guards flowers, photos and flickering candles. Those who are visiting are the guardians of the keys to these cages, the loved ones responsible for opening up this small door and placing a lit candle inside. I wonder where one would keep such a key.
I walk across trampled grass and join the flow of Ecuadorians. Hundreds of people are here, but there’s no rush or urgency. We move like molasses on the paths through the graves. Older men and women bow their heads, setting an example of reverence. Parents try to coral rambunctious children. Teens tap away on their cell phones; the screens glow harsh white in the dark.
I head off the main path and walk down the hill toward another part of the cemetery. Someone told me I could find the oldest gravestones here, and I want to be in a place where the weight of time has left its mark. Stretched before me are rows and rows of tombstones. I click a photo, capturing the captive audience of graves. Alert, they stand at attention.
I walk through the stone aisles. Some of the graves have decorations, like large marble hands clasped together rising from the gravesite. I take a photo of the hands, capturing what I think is a unique adornment, only to see the exact same hands five minutes later. And then again. The decoration is a fad, posthumous fashion.
Most of the stones have bouquets of flowers, or blinking gadgets, or flickering candles. But other gravestones appear to be abandoned. The date of death is twenty years back or more; there’s no lit candle, nothing on the stone. Perhaps there’s no one left to place flowers on the grave. Or perhaps the family has tired of the tradition. Maybe something happened to the widow, and she couldn’t come this November 2nd. Inevitably, each year more gravestones will be left unvisited, the letters softening into the granite. Eventually, no one will be able to read the names, or the dates, or the words that are carved here:
“Beloved, the one who left us too soon.”
“He laughed all his life.”
Oblivion is inevitable; it only takes a few generations before our names and epithets are forgotten. I wonder if any of the souls resting here decided on their own epithet before passing. Perhaps if they were sick, and had time to prepare, but more likely than not, those words were decided afterward. It’s such a responsibility, to summarize a life in a sentence. In my memory, the plaques for my grandparents are blank; I can’t recall the final sentence that seals their souls away.
I continue walking through the rows–hundreds of rows to explore–and children, teens, parents, and grandparents are all gathered. I don’t take a picture, though I want to. I want to capture the joy of family in contrast to the darkness blanketing this space. But I’ve stuck to documenting the lifeless, the cold stones and buildings and light. These aren’t my families to photograph.
Walking into a less busy part of the cemetery, I see an old man, hovering above a gravesite that is illuminated with dozens of candles. A perfect rectangle of flames dances around the grave. Closer, I see that he has covered the site with flower garlands as well. Glowing light casts harsh shadows on the lines of his face, but perfectly shines on the smooth face of the stone. A woman’s name, I’m able to make out as I get closer. He looks up at me, as I’m looking at him. He is alone, and I’m instantly aware that I’m intruding. He watches me as I walk by: my blond hair amongst black-haired Ecuadorians, me walking alone. He wonders why I’m here. I tuck my camera away and lower my head as he looks back down to the gravestone. This moment is his own.