San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico - The first time I saw a real Mexican cemetery, I was blown away. I thought it was absolutely beautiful! I didn't even recognize it as a cemetery at first because it was so different from what a cemetery is in Oregon, where I grew up. It was this little explosion of color in the middle of the desert, white crosses and small buildings of every color with flowers, real and artificial, filling in the spaces to the point of overflowing. Brightly colored bougainvillea bordered the cemetery along with other flowering bushes and vines.
Travelling through Mexico on a motorcycle has made me appreciate Mexican cemeteries, or panteones, even more. They are wonderful, quiet places to stop, take breaks, find shade and get a little snapshot of the lives that were conceived, grew and eventually died there.
I am 60 years old, and am always struck by the number of people who are in their graves who never even made it this far. Many didn't make it half as far. It is humbling and sad at the same time and reminds me to appreciate every day that I am given.
I love the little shrines on the graves that have pictures of the deceased, and little things that were important to them or symbolized part of their life inside. A small wooden horse, a toy motorcycle, a hammer, a child's drawing... little glimpses of their lives.
The last time I attended a funeral in Oregon, I was surprised to see that all the headstones were flush to the ground like pieces of sidewalk. I was told that this was so that the lawn mowers could mow over the tops of them and not have to go around them. I guess practicality and efficiency are deemed more important than personalization, expression and creativity. Not so here.
Since there is more rock than dirt here, many of the graves are built up from ground level with concrete... basically cement covered coffins, like dozens of small patios adorning the hillside.
There seem to be a lot of stillborn or died-shortly-after-birth babies interred, especially as you go back in time to the older sections of the cemetery. Like little fires that didn't catch, candles that were briefly lit then for whatever reason were extinguished, the little inhabitants of these tiny graves tug at my heart and leave me questioning everything.
The most elaborate cemeteries I have seen were not in big cities but rather in remote areas of Sinaloa, "narco country." These resembled housing developments more than cemeteries. Many of the crypts were two storied with balconies, AC, stained glass ... buildings nicer than most all of the houses for the living in the nearby dusty little towns.
I was told that drug money was responsible for these elaborate crypts and the dead people inside. Many of the deceased were young men between 18 and 35. Some had pictures of Jesus Malverde, the so-called "narco-saint" of Sinaloa set into the tiles.
Looking at the names on the graves and reading the dates of birth and death, I cannot help but wonder about the lives of these people. I figure most of them had tough lives and never got to do many things that we take for granted in the U.S. Many of them hardly ever had new shoes or clothes, let alone new cars or nice houses. Most of them never had the opportunity to travel abroad unless it was for work. Many of them never had the opportunity to pursue their dreams unless their dreams were small and local. The Bible tells us that "The meek shall inherit the earth." I see plenty of people in these graveyards who were probably very meek and humble, but the only earth that they have inherited is the hole that they are in now. Maybe that is what that verse meant all along.
Aticama, Nayarit This beautiful little cemetery sits on the edge of Matanchen Bay. The day I picked to go there, there was road construction and the road was blocked. I told the man who was turning the cars back that I was going to the panteón and he immediately let me through.
Another grave just thirty feet away was that of a sixteen year old girl. Next to that grave was that of a boxer. It had a glass fronted cabinet at the head of the grave with a picture of him in a boxer's pose and a worn pair of Everlast boxing gloves inside. He had lived to be seventy-six. In the middle of the cemetery I found the grave of a woman who had made it to one hundred and five years old. Her husband had died three months after her... he was ninety-five.
Visiting these colorful, hopeful little cemeteries is therapy for me. When I was younger, I was going to change the world, crush evil and leave this world a better place. Now I realize that I am insignificant and essentially meaningless to all but a dwindling handful of people.
When I was a child, I thought that by the time I was forty I would have Life figured out. But by the time I reached forty, I had been divorced three times and my well-laid plans for my life were in disarray. I was still happy and hopeful but was severely questioning my own wisdom. Now, twenty years later, all I can say that I know for sure is that I do not know. It does my soul good to walk among the departed, try to get a glimpse of their lives and appreciate the love shown by those who build and decorate their graves.
No matter how fed up I am at times with my own life, to see graves of children and people who would have loved to reach sixty but didn't, makes me appreciate life despite the struggles and sadness. No matter how sorry I am feeling for myself, all that vanishes when I look at the tiny grave of a child.
Mexican cemeteries are like Mexican life... colorful, celebratory, unabashed and unrestricted. Their disorder and almost chaotic mosaics of structures, colors, statues and flowers makes a beautiful whole, a delightful place-of-exit for those who have passed on and a pleasant place for the living to come and think of their loved ones.
And for people like myself, who are just visitors, they are a beautiful and humbling reminder that we are all here for just a short time, so be nice, be kind, be slow to judge and quick to forgive, and never miss an opportunity to encourage or lift someone up.
"Suffering should be creative, it should give birth to something good and lovely."
- Chinua Achebe