Mar 17, 2017

Having a Bone to Pick… Or Not…

Attract what you expect
Reflect what you desire
Become what you respect
Mirror what you admire


Pomuch - small ossuary with newer bones
Pomuch cemetery is filled with colorful niches or osarios (ossuaries) rather than conventional tombs.  Many are stacked haphazardly, even precariously in some cases. 

Very narrow pathways lead to all corners of this tiny but nearly overflowing cemetery.  One must walk sideways at times, not to disturb anything.  Pomuch represents a vanishing tradition of preserving the bones of the departed for as long as possible by drying them and then cleaning them on a regular basis as a continued remembrance.

The deceased is first buried for about three years or until only bones and hair remain.  By then, all flesh, organs, muscles or cartilage have been cleaned away by lively mother nature.  The bones are then dug up during the following Day of the Dead (Nov 1) and put in a small wooden box (ossuary) so they can dry and later easily accessed for their yearly ‘bone washing’. 

This tradition also uses a lot less space which may be needed in some parts of the world. 

Sometimes they are doubled up in one niche

During the Day of the Dead, bones that have already been dug up are cleaned (usually dusted off with brushes) and rearranged neatly in their box, skull on top, as fresh flowers are placed nearby.  The embroidered cloth covering the small box where the remains of the deceased are stacked is replaced or washed.  That embroidery usually depicts the name or initials of the deceased, birth and death dates, location as well as birds, flowers, angels, crosses, etc.  Finally, some food offerings and candles may be placed in the niche. 

This ritual is said to keep the family together but few in the current generation want to continue this tradition and that worries the elderlies who would like to die in peace…  They believe that if their bones are poorly taken care of, they will end up unhappy and forever wander lost.  They fear how and where they’ll end up. 

To date, the oldest bones found in an ossuary (which can be inside caves or underground tunnels) are about 3,000 years old.  They were located near the Honduran Mosquito Coast.  This method of dealing with the dead started way before Europeans made their presence felt.   

The largest known ossuary in the world is under the City of Light, Paris, where six million skeletons are stacked in the miles of underground tunnels found in its underbelly.  By comparison Pomuch is a grain of sand but still worth seeing.  It is the only known in-use ossuary of this type in Mexico. 

A.M.M. with hair – looking at you. 
Only a simple box covered with bright white embroidered cloth
Wikipedia:  An ossuary is a chest, box, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains. They are frequently used where burial space is scarce. A body is first buried in a temporary grave, then after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in an ossuary. The greatly reduced space taken up by an ossuary means that it is possible to store the remains of many more people in a single tomb than if the original coffins were left as is.

The Merida General Cemetery

Not as colorful as some of the other cemeteries we have seen in Mexico
Perhaps because many have not been taken care of for years as people moved away
This massive and somewhat enigmatic camposanto (saint field – cemetery) opened in 1821 when Merida’s government wanted cemeteries to move outside the city limits.  Thankfully an old hacienda (Xcoholté) came up for sale as the elderly owners had no descendants to pass it onto.  Up until that time, people were buried near their churches which were usually located within the city limits.  Today, this cemetery is surrounded by the city and suburbs of a continually expanding Merida.

Angel of Freedom without sword
An angel on a high column graces one of the entrances of the cemetery.  It is believed to be the Angel of Freedom although its sword is missing as lightning destroyed it. 

Small Maya hut as gravesite marker
One of the characteristics of this cemetery is that its ‘buildings’ reflect the style of architecture that housed those who died.  This is the first Mexican cemetery where we see Maya huts as ‘tombstones’ for example.  It covers the gamut of neoclassic, eclectic, Greek, Porfirista, Gothic or French styles and made from plain concrete to granite or stones brought from Europe by rich families.  Ultimately though, what is inside is all the same…

Missing a wing but still standing guard
This place offers varied mortuary structures such as mausoleums, ossuaries, crypts, vaults, niches, etc.  Many famous people are here, too numerous to mention but quickly their history is fading as few families still live close enough to take care of the dead and their ‘homes’.  Many gravesites have no names or markings of any kind.  It would be very difficult to find some of them.  Several crypts are cracked open, bones now in the open for all to see.

How much longer can this one stand?
Some parts of the cemetery represent groups such as henequén workers, the Socialists, Society of the Arts, Yucatecan singers, railroad employees, Chinese, Masonic Lodge, etc…

A ball of sisal on a coil of rope, to the henequén workers
One of the many in this part of the cemetery
To the Socialists
To Yucatecan Music
A large ceiba (kapok) tree is in full whitish cottony fluff before its leaves start shading the ground below.  Lighter than air, they float all around us.  This ceiba is bigger than anything else around this cemetery, seemingly overseeing and blessing this peaceful place.  Across, flower vendors quietly wait.  I read somewhere one of them has been doing so for 57 years.

Art Deco - Overhanging many tombs, under a large ceiba (kapok) tree
As fancy as a church
We walked for nearly an hour and could not even cover ¼ of this cemetery.  It is immense and nearly maze-like in some areas with very narrow paths meandering through the gravesites and tall grasses.  Stray dogs come and go, some of them eating food offerings left for the departed loved ones, others begging from the workers who try to keep the place a tidy. 

In some cases, there are centuries of bones stacked up in family plots.  The most recent body goes into the ground which first involves the digging up of older bones that are then collected inside an ossuary, repeatedly making room for the next generations. 

Over the years, those bones go missing, get broken or become thinner, like the now fragile Jesus, Virgins, cherubs or angels missing body parts or wings guarding them from above. 

Sculpture of the dead.  Imitation of the work of Mexican sculptor Almo Strenta, 1906. 
Lifting the sheet with which Rosa Benet covered body of her dead husband Alvaro Medina Rodriguez

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