The Halloween Edition

Along with reclining seats and devices to give new life to tired legs, preparing for ones own funeral is now a major topic in the advertisements on daytime television. Which tells us a lot about their audience demographics. We are encouraged to take out a life policy or funeral plan so that the our children will not have to find the money to send us off.

Co-op Funeral Care however is taking a different line. It is inviting us all to have a conversation with our loved ones regarding the type of funeral we would like to have. Perhaps a motor bike and side-car rather than the usual hearse, a memorial service with jokey reminiscences or something rather more traditional, our favourite pop music or church music.

Whatever our choice, we are told it is better to have that conversation now, so that those left behind on our demise will know what to do, what we would have wanted had we been in a fit state to appreciate it all – as if, in fact, we had not actually been already dead and (almost) buried.

Now, I know that many people, especially those who know that they’re on their final furlong, do sometimes make very detailed plans. The obvious truth, however, is that I wouldn’t really be in a position to appreciate the genius of my planning, the incorporation of extracts from my brilliant essays and tales showing what a wonderful person I was.

And I also recognise that for the most part, people don’t want to spend too long listening to stories about the deceased’s life if there are some drinks and food available afterwards. So then, other than requesting that some decent champagne is served, I’m not sure that I shall be spending much time engaged in considering how I may be remembered.

Starting in the Stone Age, however, archaeologists have found very many examples of apparently higher status people buried with weapons, food and valuables of various sorts and even the occasional chariot. Kings, queens and others of similar status normally had very impressive memorials. The Pharaohs had pyramids designed not simply to act as memorials, but to store everything necessary to usher them safely into the next world. And then there is the wonder of the world which is the Taj Mahal, where the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife are buried.

But I was reading the other day in the Economist about a part of our contemporary world, a long way away, in which the memorial to the deceased is taken extremely seriously. We’re looking at Mexico. On November 1st and 2nd, millions of Mexicans will visit cemeteries to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The tradition, a fusion of Catholic and indigenous belief, holds that the dead briefly come back to join the living. It originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For those cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum: the dead were still members of the community. And so, families play music and decorate loved ones' graves with orange cempasúchil flowers, banners and food.

The celebration is particularly extravagant in the Jardines del Humaya, which is the country's most visually spectacular burial ground. It is in the north-western state of Sinaloa, a centre for Mexican drug gangs. It started with farmers growing marijuana before turning to cocaine trafficking and now fentanyl. Humaya Gardens hosts a "who's who" of dead members of the narcos cartels. Many were members of the Sinaloa cartel, formerly run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who, after a break-out from Mexican prison via a tunnel, has now been re-captured, and festers in a rather more secure American prison.

The Cemetery itself looks like a swanky nouveau-riche development, using a style of architecture referred to locally as "narcdeco". The multi-storey, multi-plot mausoleums are larger than most Mexican homes. There is a mini Taj Mahal and an imitation Greek temple. Some have cupolas; others boast angels or statues of saints.
Rather like the mausoleum built by Berlusconi for himself, his relatives and friends, there is a lot of marble and even some stained glass. At least one has bulletproof-glass windows. Rumour has it that some of the mausoleums cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. The tombs are as luxurious inside as outside. Many have air conditioning, water and Wi-Fi as incentives for relatives to visit.  Some have bedrooms or benches outside to bask in the sun.

The main chamber invariably features a photo of the deceased. Many pose with guns; one has a display of knives in the tomb. Around them sit souvenirs of their lives, from teddy bears to bottles of tequila. While still alive drug barons are immortalised in 'riarcocorridos', ballads about the drug world. Their lives however are often short: most photos show men in their 20s or 30s. But like others in Mexico, Narcos are often religious, or at least superstitious, and want a proper burial.

Construction in Humaya Gardens began in 1969. Ordinary people are buried there too, but in much more modest, one-plot graves. It was in the 1990s, however, that many of the grandest tombs started to be erected. This coincided with a crack-down on gangs, which left more people dead, as well as the development of a more flashy and excessive narcocultura. A trade that originated with farmers is now urban and more violent.

Since 2006 Mexico has more vigorously policed drug cartels, so narcos have had to become more discreet. However, once they die, the need for discretion dies with them and so they and their wealth can be feted. Some feel the tombs glorify the viciousness of drug-trafficking and its attack on the rule of law and have criticised Mexico's government for not shutting down the Cemetery. In Chile the government has recently demolished several narco burial sites. But it is harder to do this in Sinaloa, because the power of drug lords is so entrenched there.

Unlike gangs elsewhere in Mexico, the Sinaloa cartel has convinced locals that it does not prey on them. They are regarded as part of the social fabric. Many men in Sinaloa aspire to join gangs and, despite this, do not struggle to find wives from the area – who are presumably looking forward to a short, but profitable marriage. It is said that there is no clear line between them and those not involved in drug gangs. Until death, that is, when some get tombs fit for kings and others simple graves. Death is not such a great equaliser after all.

Paul Buckingham

31 October 2023

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