Once again it’s that time of the year when it’s all about cemeteries, the dead, and the now famous traditional Hanal Pixán celebrations in Yucatán. As a long time resident of the area and owner of a tour company that specializes in off-the-beaten-track excursions and experiences for visitors to the region, I always subject my guests to stops here and there to see something of interest that might not be on anyone’s radar. One of the most interesting spots for a stop in any Yucatecan village or town, is the local cemetery.
There is much to see and experience in Yucatán; more so than is readily discernible at first glance, and your visit of a few days can easily become an expedition of a few weeks if you really start exploring and going beyond the usual tourism brochure points of interest.
But there is a little stop just before Izamal, when turning off the highway to drive through the underbrush and the occasional henequén plantation, where you will be delighted by the most unique cemetery you have probably seen in your travels. The first time I visited, I was amazed by the detail and intricacy of the painted decorations.
This is the cemetery of Hoctún, well known locally, nationally, and even internationally thanks to its unique tombs, known here as “mausoleos,” painted and decorated in bright colors and even featuring constructions made especially for the deceased, including a replica of the Torre Latinoamericana, located in México City, for a family member who had worked on the building of the monument in his youth.
Information indicates that the cemetery was built in 1866 and a second section added in 1962. Initially it was like any other cemetery in Yucatán: flat stones, small altars, and everything above ground, because of the rocky ground we are on. You’ve probably read this elsewhere: that much of the Yucatán peninsula sits on a porous limestone shelf that juts out into the ocean. There’s hardly any soil! The point being you can’t just dig a hole (for a grave in this case) without a jackhammer or heavy machinery, and so, folks make whatever shallow excavation they can and the crypt is built up on the rock.
In any case, the Hoctún gravesites – like in most Yucatecan towns whose residents have little in the way of disposable income – were basic, plain, and without much beyond a modest wooden cross or piece of fake marble with perhaps a simple sculpture on top, until one person decided to honor his deceased loved one by jazzing up the tomb with some color and paint. Others liked what they saw and figured their loved ones deserved some color too, and so it became the thing to do. Today there are around 600 graves, and the vast majority have some sort of unique construction and are covered in colorful flowers, cherubs, and hand-painted script indicating who is inside and when they lived. Some call it the prettiest cemetery in Yucatán and even in México.
Take your time, walking around, among and behind the colorful gravesites. Go into the back section where you will find more modest burial plots. Peek into cracks, there is always at least one human bone sticking out somewhere. Read the Maya surnames and look at the dates. I am fascinated by the names that appear on some of the markers; there are many traditional old Spanish names or names taken from saints on the Catholic calendar that are no longer in use today.
To visit any cemetery during Yucatán’s Hanal Pixán is a magical experience and you will see much activity as families return to their loved ones’ gravesites to clean, paint, and place flowers and candles in preparation for the spirits coming to visit. At Hoctún, this is especially emotive and memorable. For those who share my fascination with cemeteries and local culture, as well as photography “aficionados,” this stop is a must and a great way to break up the drive to Izamal or the Maya archaeological site of Chichén Itzá.
Editorial and photos by Ralf Hollmann for Yucatán Today’s use.
Read more about Día de Muertos and Hanal Pixán:
- Festival de las Ánimas in Yucatán
- An Awaited Celebration: Hanal Pixan
- Hanal Pixan Altars
- ¡Ya Huele a Pib! (it smells like Pib!)
- Pib Season
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