November 2 — Day of the Dead — is on its way, but for one Mayan village in Mexico, that means a much more intimate contact with the dearly departed. The residents of Pomuch, near Campeche, each year painstakingly clean by hand the bones of their relatives as a way to honor their loss and show they are not forgotten.

article-imageCleaning the bones (AP photo)

The practice is actually active in a few small villages in the Camino Real Alto area, none of them rich places, but the families make sure to afford fresh cloth with detailed embroidery and flowers to surround the bones of their relatives held in wooden forms. When someone in Pomuch passes away, they are buried for a period of three years which allows for decomposition and for their bones to dry out. After those three years, they are exhumed on the Day of the Dead and given their first cleaning. 

The day prior — November 1 — is reserved for cleaning the bones of children, a day that can be especially emotional. For much of the year, the cemetery is actually locked to visitors, only being open from mid-October through to early November. Graves in the cemetery date back to the 1930s, as generally the bones are cleaned until they finally turn to dust. For those without any surviving family to care for their bones, the cemetery workers make sure they clean at least the majority to give them equal attention. 

article-imageOne of the skulls displayed post-cleaning (via Atlas Obscura)

As one Pomuch resident stated, as quoted in Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions: “Some people are afraid of touching the bones […] But it’s like when you visit your mother: You maybe help bathe her,  dress her, comb her hair. This is the same thing.” 

POMUCH CEMETERY, Pomuche, Mexico

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