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What's the Best Way to Honour the Dead?

WRITTEN BY KEVIN KRIKKE


I don’t make a habit of walking through cemeteries. But I did once, and the memories still haunt me… and inspire me. 

This is a time of year when people are perhaps more likely than usual to frequent burial sites and gaze at gravestones, what with Halloween just past and the sobering ceremonies of Remembrance Day quickly approaching. 

Most of us visit cemeteries only during the funerals of loved ones, or to lay flowers in their memory on special days. Why is this? Do the graves of the departed whisper notions we don’t like to hear or think about? 

Your days are numbered. Your life is fleeting. One day you will join us here. 

Not exactly the kinds of ideas that fuel “the power of positive thinking” or that we dwell on to inspire our daily lives. When’s the last time you went to a self-improvement seminar that was hosted at your local cemetery?

Several years ago, however, I went for an unforgettable walk through a very unique graveyard. I was in Guatemala City acting as chaperone to a group of Canadian high school students. Our host took us on a driving tour of the capital and our itinerary included a stop at the Guatemala City General Cemetery. After passing a couple of surprisingly new shopping malls juxtaposed with obviously poorer neighborhoods filled with ubiquitous beggars, we got out of our vans and walked through an area the size of several city blocks, full of gravesites. 



In Canada, I’m used to seeing cemeteries that are basically large green fields containing row upon row of relatively uniform, flat-faced grave markers. Some lay horizontally like boxes on the ground, while others rise vertically to somewhere between two and three feet. A more elaborate stone might have an extension on top in the shape of a cross.  

In the Guatemala City Cemetery there were some smaller headstones like I was used to, but these seemed to be the exception. Most of the tombs appeared to be housed in several large rectangular buildings, like shortened apartments filled with cubbyhole vaults for the remains of the dead. 

But what really caught my eye was the surprising number of monuments that looked like miniature cathedrals. 

These sites contained larger-than-life statues of the departed, of angels, or biblical scenes. One in particular was a stone structure the size of a large house, accentuated with historical images of ancient Egypt. Clearly, some important and wealthy people were buried here, including (according to our host) many of Guatemala’s past presidents.



As we proceeded further and further into the cemetery, a stench grew in the air. When I inquired about its source, our host responded with a simple, “You’ll see soon enough.” 

Along with the smell, we began to notice dark vultures flying overhead or sitting ominously on the tops of gravestones. The iconic scavengers were obviously here for a reason. 



Minutes later, we reached the main destination that our host had in mind for us from the beginning: the edge of the cemetery was a viewpoint from which we could see a massive canyon below, filled with garbage – Guatemala City’s main dump. 



It was crawling with people who were more the size of small insects from our distant vantage point. 

“Thousands of people live down there”, our host said. 

“You mean they work there, right?” one of our students responded. 

“No, they live there. It’s their home, all the time.” The student shook his head in disbelief, then pulled up his shirt collar, trying in vain to shield his nose from the putrid smell. 



After several more minutes of silent staring at the unreal scene playing out down below, the members of our group turned away and began to walk back through the maze of monuments. 

Now I saw the large, elaborate gravestones, expensive statues, and massive mausoleums with a sense of shock and sadness. So much time, thought, and money had obviously been invested here to remember and honour those who were already dead. 

And clearly, so few resources were being dedicated to remember and honour those who were alive, or barely alive, in the neighbouring dump.

Years later, this experience still serves to haunt and inspire me. 

It haunts me when I recognize that I’m living out of too much concern for the praise and honour of others, both in the here and now and when I’m gone. 

And it inspires me to continue living out a realization I had that day: it is important to remember and honour the dead, and there’s no better way to do that than to find ways to support, dignify, and improve the lives of those who are still living.





About Kevin Krikke: A teacher at an online school, Kevin currently lives with his wife and children in Chilliwack, British Columbia. He would love to get back to Guatemala for the chance to visit again with the incredible people he met there.

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