During my work in the field in a Wayúu community, I had the opportunity to see a small cemetery. My colleagues Franklin and Isabel (she is actually Wayúu) explained to me the Wayúu tradition surrounding death. First of all the Wayúu religion is difficult to define. Most people are evangelist or catholic, due to the evangelisation carried out during the Spanish colonisation, but at the same time the presence of pre-colonial figures or gods is still vivid. It is curious to see how the original Wayúu god Maleiwa has been assimilated with the Christian God. Asking Isabel about her religious beliefs, she says that she believes in Maleiwa, a god that doesn’t seem to interfere with the everyday life. It is a supernatural being, however for Isabel it doesn’t make a difference if it is Muslim, Catholic or Hindu, knowing that there is a god is enough for her. From my perspective, this explanation is a bit difficult to digest because I’ve always been used to somehow “classifying” gods and I imagine them as different and distinct entities.
But now back to death.
When a Wayúu dies the relatives wait 3 days before burying the body. During this time all the relatives that live far from the deceased reach the community to celebrate, eat and drink Chirichi, typical homemade booze. As Isabel said “They get pretty drunk!”.
During the third day, the defunct is carried to the cemetery in a procession where women are dressed in black and sing (I’m going to quote Isabel here: “They sing a lot… like Pavarotti!”-, even Wayúus know Pavarotti) while following the coffin to the burial place.
After 9 days, the parents and relatives come back to visit the deceased and again after 30 days, 6 months and one year. After 5 years the remains of the defunct are exhumed and placed in an urn. This urn is then taken to the deceased’s original clan cemetery because it is believed that only there the soul can really rest for the eternity.
Even though I’m not religious, I’m fascinated by these beliefs in spirits and souls which remind me of Isabelle Allende and some of her books I read, where the presence of spirits is “normal” and even makes everything a bit more magic.