Outside the gates of the public cemetery, I walk through the Catholic carnival that is Día de los Muertos. I dodge umbrella spikes and the yells of aggressive vendors, but stop outside a flower shop. I buy a small bouquet. I don’t have anyone specific to give it to, but last year, I’d heard there is a large gravesite for the anonymous bodies, the bodies that families couldn’t pay for. I want to leave my flowers there.
A man is playing the accordion right at the edge of the threshold into the aisles of gravestones.In the post-rain soak, plastic ponchos and rainbow raincoats push their way through the adorned gates; I join the flow and am spat out, a few seconds later, inside.
I first go toward the old, castle-like walls, the same ones I saw last year. I feel like I’m visiting old friends. None of the names have stuck in my memory, but I know some, most, of these names are probably the same. There is a man opening up one of the cages in front of the plaque. He works for the cemetery, and has his own utility key.
“Quien tiene las llaves para las cajas; usted, o la familia?” Who holds the keys to these boxes, I ask. He tells me the family does, but he has the master key. Last year, I walked through the cemetery in the imaginary steps of a recent widow, a woman my mind created who was coming here for the first time. She had lost her key, the key to open up the cage in front of her husband’s plaque, and her mother, her siblings, were so angry at her. I could feel her disappointment and grief, heavily wrapped around her shoulders, weighing her down to the cobblestoned floor. It’s comforting to know that if a family loses its key, there is an extra. There is always a way to leave something for the departed.
The gravestones, as I walk down the rows, don’t have epitaphs. I only find three inscriptions scrawled among the stones as I walk through the Municipal Cemetery this Día de los Muertos. Also, most of the stones only have one date–the date of death. The date of birth isn’t as important.
I’m surprised. I had remembered the stones differently the last time I walked in this cemetery, exactly one year ago. This time, I’m exploring the gravestone aisles during the day, and the experience feels altogether different than walking amongst the spirits at night. In the darkness, there’s a holiness. Faces are illuminated by candles; lights glow like bouncing orbs on the paths. But during the day, the energy is amplified, like a speaker turned up, but it’s not intensified. It doesn’t go as deep.
Flowers are everywhere, wet and wilted, their colors muted in the rain. I climb up the steps of an old building, stained black from water and time. The steps remind me of the never-ending Penrose stairs. From this vantage point, two stories up, I can see across the entire cemetery, the view interrupted by large crypts and spires of mausoleums. A statue of Christ, head hanging, is to my left. He’s looking down at the people below.
I descend the steps and keep walking. Some of the squares I find don’t have plaques; they only have a name. Matias. Scrawled in Sharpie. Enough money to buy the tomb, but not enough to spend on the plaque. This is the business of death.
There’s a white marble tower down one of the rows; it has Gothic spires that stretch toward the gray clouds, and ornate columns carved into the facade. Eljuri. It belongs to the wealthiest family in Cuenca, perhaps the wealthiest in Ecuador. This is what lujo–luxury—looks like in death. A white castle beautiful enough to tempt God to reach down to earth and bring the inhabitants up to heaven.
Catholicism dictates tradition in Cuenca. I’ve heard that other parts of Ecuador are not so rigid in their faith, or at least in their practice of it. In Esmeraldas on the northern coast, for example, the public cemetery is frequently washed away in storms, the dirt sliding off the mounds to reveal pieces of bones popping up to reconnect with families. Funerals can be joyous affairs there. One funeral procession was blasting reggaeton music, and the four men carrying the coffin danced as they walked, the box bouncing on their shoulders.
But here, in the cold Andes Mountains, the procession from life to death, and how the dead are remembered, is more of a solemn affair, at least for the adults. Kids in Cuenca, like kids anywhere, still run around and play, scurrying over graves. They’re tempting death with every footstep, seeing if the spirits will get angry. The adults, however, wear the somber faces of men and women who are grieving or remembering, or who have been taught that melancholy is the preferred state for the living when they stand at Death’s door.
It makes me think of the funerals I attended for my grandparents; I think about how I tried to make myself cry. I remember trying to conjure up tears, to show my family and the visitors–and perhaps myself– that I was grieving, but not a single tear came. It hadn’t meant there wasn’t a hole inside me, an emptiness, trying to understand: I wouldn’t knead bread with Grandma, I wouldn’t go to the opera with Grandaddy, I wouldn’t feed the doves at 5 A.M. with Grandpa, and I wouldn’t sit on the sofa with Grammy, the smell of ash trays and Collie dogs wrapped around us. These realizations came with time because grief isn’t instant; it’s not five tears shed at a funeral procession. Grief manifests in memories, in the absences. My own definitions of what happened after death also shifted as each grandparent passed; I moved away from the pearly gates of heaven to the dirty trunks of trees, where I can sometimes sense a nurturing spirit.
In Cuenca, church services are practically mandatory. Here in the cemetery as well, I hear the preacher voice of the padre, that monotone up-down that catches listeners in its hypnotic net. I suppose there’s comfort in a Bible verse, and a padre who talks about heaven. The church service–la misa— seems to have just started. I come upon it at the base of the hill. There is sea of upturned umbrellas, like painted turtle shells, hovers outside billowing white tent peaks. Whipped peaks. Dozens of people are crammed inside. I walk by and listen to “the peace,” when everyone hugs one another. ‘May the peace be with you, and also with you. Peace. Peace.’ The rehearsed litany enters my mind, my own years of church service bubbling up to the surface. I keep walking.
Up the hill, some larger gravestones catch my attention. One of them is blank–there is no name, or inscription, or date, but it’s carved with geometric shapes–rectangles, squares, lines. Perhaps a testament to human experience being wordless; perhaps something artsy and representative of the body buried inside. Another stone has music notes etched in the black marble, and a miniature guitar hovering above–a man named Segundo, who was both a musician and a poet, or so says the stone. My favorite is a gravestone made of what looks like a petrified stump; a whole garden of succulents and flowers surrounds it, and a rose-budded trees is blossoming from the soil.
A man in a jacket with a logo walks my way. Pausing for a second, I recognize the logo as the cemetery logo, and though I’m not sure he’ll want to talk, I do have some questions. Demurely, I ask him if he works for the cemetery. He does. I begin.
“I’m curious,” I start, “about something someone told me. That if a family doesn’t pay its taxes, the body is removed from the grave. Is that true?”
Shaking his head, he clarifies, “It’s not exactly like that. Every family, when they purchase a place in the wall, pays for the space for four years–it’s’ a smaller amount. During those four years, the family can actually put up to four people inside.”
“Are there whole bodies in there?” I ask, baffled. The walls are only ten feet thick.
“No, just the huesos, the bones.”
“So a family pays for a square, and then can bury other members in there as well, for up to four years. And then, they can buy the space forever? How much does it cost?”
“For one of the spaces in those walls, it is $1,800. But there are more economical options too. Those walls, over there, they are $800.” He gestures first to the larger walls near the entrance, then to a smaller wall at the back of the cemetery.
Thinking about the rumor of the site for anonymous bodies, I continue, “And if a family doesn’t pay the whole amount, what happens?”
“Well, there are lots of payment options, but if a family cannot pay the amount or if we contact the family at the end of the four years and they do not come, then we move the remains to the shared crypt.”
“And where is that, exactly?”
He gestures to the white dome I had seen earlier today. “There, that is where the huesos and remains of people whose families cannot pay are. It’s a beautiful space. See all the flowers? Lots of families use this option. It only costs $8.00, so that everyone has a space where they can bury the remains of their loved one inside the cemetery. This is what makes this cemetery special, and different. It is a public cemetery, so we have options for everyone.”
Inside that dome lie the forgotten, the anonymous, and the loved ones of families who couldn’t afford $800 for a permanent resting place in one of the walls. The average monthly salary in Cuenca is $400; two months rent for a permanent resting place in Death’s house.
“But of course, some people prefer to cremate the remains of their loved ones, and scatter them at their haciendas or in other places, but the majority still prefer to bury the bones in the cemetery, rather than cremate,” he adds.
Typically Catholic, I think. I wonder, how many of the people buried here are Catholic. I ask, “Can anyone be buried here, of any religion or ethnicity?”
“Yes, anyone can be buried here. We have a section for Jews and a section for Baha’i. Muslims, protestants, anyone. And,” he adds with excitement, “The families can decorate the tombstone however they want. See,” He motions to a gravestone nearby, “This one has a step for each member of the family, leading up to the patriarch who died. And there’s the one with the tree, just down here.” He points out the gravestone I had already stopped and stared at.. “It’s one of my favorites,” he tells me.
“Mine too,” I add.
“This is not a place just for the dead. It’s why we call it un cementerio vivo— this is a living cemetery,” he ends with a smile.
I thank him for his time, telling him how he’s helped clarify many things, and we both walk away in different directions. He walks up toward the Baha’i, I walk down toward the Crypt for the Anonymous–the white dome. At the dome, two women are staring into the grate on the white wall; peeking behind them, I can barely make out gray dustiness inside. The women walk away and I walk up to the window, bursting with flowers, both real and fake. The spirits here, perhaps more than the others, could use some extra adornment from a stranger passing through, so I tuck the three flowers of my small bouquet into the others.
I stand for a moment longer, wishing prayers of remembrance upon those who are buried here. I don’t know their names, genders, ages, but I know some of these bones were moved here because the families had stopped visiting the gravestones, and there was nowhere else for them. A family with two kids appears behind me; I sense their eagerness to get to the window and say their own prayers. They have brought their flowers for someone buried in here; there is someone they want to remember. Walking away from the dome, I nod to the family and head toward the exit. It’s time for me to go.