As we drove toward Plaza Mayor, we slowly passed through a vast cemetery, the oldest Cementerio General. If you like moseying through old cemeteries, this one is a particular treasure. It is the largest and oldest in Mérida and is graced with a few spectacular headstones and mausoleums of wealthy Hacienda owners, historic figures, groups of musicians, hemp workers, a complete gamut of the locals, albeit deceased locals.
One intriguing surprise was the grave of an intrepid American woman, Alma Reed, who had a love affair with Governor Felipe Carillo Puerte. He, a Socialist, doing much to reform and improve the lives of the Mayan hemp workers, was assassinated with some of his brothers and Socialist colleagues. At a corner in the Cemetario is the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustre (rotunda of illustrious men), where you will find his remains. You will also see the wall against which he was executed by a firing squad in 1924, a bright yellow monument in the cemetery. Alma was a writer for several New York and San Francisco newspapers and was in San Francisco buying her wedding dress when the Governor was assassinated. Crushed by the death of her lover and fiancé, she asked to be buried near him. Her grave is across the street from his, lovers still separated by a wide boulevard. Her story is quite unique, I encourage you to find her history online or in the several books published about her life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alma_Reed
Humberto, my guide, led me to another remarkable mausoleum, a shrine to a wealthy Hacienda patron. An enormous full size bed, layered with rippled linen sheets of hand carved marble, is elevated about five feet off the ground. Standing alongside the bed is a elegantly dressed woman, Rosa Benet, gently lifting the corner of the sheet to gaze at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, who passed away while she was at a gala. The story is that he had persuaded her to go and enjoy the evening, she protested, but went and missed saying a last goodbye to her beloved husband. The work was an Imitation of the work of Mexican sculptor Almo Strenta.
The Cementerio mimics community life, the wide main avenue is lined by the houses/mausoleums of the wealthy, the casta divina families. Many historic people are buried here, and its memorials are built in Greek, Gothic or French neoclassic styles, often from stone or granite brought from Europe by local wealthy families. They range from classically beautiful to over-the-top displays of wealth, and deeper in the back you will find simple but colorful houses of the dead, all filled with restos – remains.
If you walk deeper into the Cementerio, under the enormous shade trees, you will also discover more modest houses for the deceased, small tomb-houses that seemed to be devoted to just one person. On closer inspection, you will see stacks of osarios, boxes full of bones. The bones of generations, buried one on top of the other. In a family-owned plot, the most recent body will be buried in the ground. That usually involves digging up the old bones from previous generations and adding new family members. The little houses, built by the living for the dead relatives, are kept for visiting purposes. Simple replicas of houses, some are very colorfully painted, others remain white, bleached by years of blazing sun; some have windows or doors and are topped by angels or crosses and inside each house, may be a small memento of the deceased. The living place these trinkets to honor their ancestors, you may see statues of saints, candles or bits of flowers and plants.
Every year, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 throughout Mexico, in the Yucatán it’s called Hanal Pixán, Mayan for “food of the souls.”
Once, historically held at the beginning of summer, Day of the Dead was moved to coincide with the Christian festivals following the Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 16th Century. On Oct. 31, All Hallows Eve, children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos – children to visit. Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits are invoked and invited. Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The holiday and celebration has evolved over the years and is a complex celebration of the deceased relatives and a celebration of life.
Look skyward to view the many cherubs or angels, many missing wings or body parts, spirits guarding the families from above.