SANTIAGO SACATEPEQUEZ, Guatemala – Rarely will you see so many people happy to be in a cemetery.
It's Nov. 1 here in Santiago Sacatepequez and it's time for everybody to get their party on at the city's graveyard in celebration of the Day of the Dead.
What's that? A day of family fun surrounded by tombs and gravestones?
It's true. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans gather here at this time every year to commemorate, not mourn, their loved ones who have passed on.
“We've been doing this tradition for about 111 years,” says our tour guide, Marvin Chang.
Over that time, the celebration has developed into a gigantic festival designed to honour the spirits of loved ones past. The reason the mood is so upbeat stems from the indigenous Mayan culture.
“We believe after this life we have another life,” says Chang.
That next life is supposedly so awesome that it's worthy of a big party here on Earth.
So be it.
For those who have ancestors buried at the cemetery, the festivities begin immediately by sharing a family meal at the dead member's grave site.
“You have to cook their favourite food,” says Chang, referring to the deceased.
The idea is to connect with their spirit by offering them their preferred eats. Even beer counts if that was their drink of choice.
Another way of doing this is by serving up a dish known as fiambre.
Fiambre is a cold salad typically made using sausages, cold cuts, cheese and various fruits and vegetables. It is only consumed during the Day of the Dead.
Okay. Chowing down on your dead ancestor's favourite grub in their “presence” sounds pretty cool, but the fun has just begun.
The real colour and character of the celebration starts with the raising and flying of various home made kites.
Dozens of tissue paper kites of all shapes, sizes and designs fill the sky throughout the day. They symbolize a gateway between the next world and ours.
“The souls in the sky, they're are going down in order to visit the cemetery and also to visit our families,” says Chang.
The tradition of flying kites only began in the 1950s. Prior to that, people would decorate the outside of their homes with different coloured tissue paper.
“The winds in November blew out all those decorations, so they thought it was a good idea to put something in the sky in order to send a message to our ancestors,” says Chang.
But the use of kites during the Day of the Dead has grown far beyond simply flying them.
Where kites were once made to be only a few metres in diameter, now some are created about 25 metres across and take months to build.
Competitions are held to see who can build the largest kite (if it stays in one piece) and the most beautiful. There are even contests to see how long some of the bigger kites can stay in the air.
The kite has become a token of this special day and represents the flair of the Guatemalan people. It is what makes this country's take on the Day of the Dead unique.
While it is believed the sudden use of kites was influenced by Asia, the meaning attached to them comes from the Mayan religion.
Mayans believe that the heavens consisted of 13 layers in the sky.
“We need to reach all those layers in order to be with our god,” says Chang.
The kites represent that ascension.
What a marvelous way of showing it.