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Death in the Mountains

A year ago, I would have never believed it if you told me I would be writing a book on Mayan burial and funeral traditions in the mountains of Guatemala. Yet, here I am. In Guatemala, I am beginning to interview survivors of the departed souls of the mountains of Sololá, Atitlan.

It started when I saw my first funeral procession in San Juan. So profoundly moved, I had only been at my own sister's funeral 17 years ago. Since then, I have been to many funerals, none have made me weep this way.

Everything is different when it comes to dealing with death here.

To me, it seems that death has taken on such a private aspect in Canadian and North American culture. "Please respect our privacy as we mourn." Here, from the moment a death occurs, everything about it is public. The deceased's name is announced on the town loudspeaker, followed by a haunting song to inform the entire community at once about the loss.

The town then gathers and helps the family clear a room in the home where guests can honor the departed. White sheets are folded in the shapes of bows and hung above all doors and entrances of the mourning family's house, and the body is groomed and dressed by the family one last time.

And while to North Americans, this may seem bizarre, people here couldn't even imagine the disconnection that a funeral home would impose. (Reminder: a dead body is a lot safer than a live one.)

Funeral homes do not exist here. Although carpentry shops sell caskets, the preparing and grooming of the body are done exclusively by the family in mourning. This arrangement provides closure, and it gives support. And I'm not talking 'Grief hot-line support.' It offers actual, tangible threads to reality in a time when it's so easy to drift away into denial. Remaining connected and handling the body anchors one to the moment and gives ample opportunity to bid farewell.

The topic of death and our human traditions surrounding it have always intrigued me since the passing of my dear sister Faye. She was swept away from my life in a sudden accident when I was 18.

My parents called me in Vancouver to fly to Cold Lake, Alberta, to mourn her passing. I remember arriving, and soon after, we were ushered into a room the day before the funeral for a "viewing." What I encountered looked nothing like the beautiful woman my sister once was. At most, I had a minute or two to scar my mind and give way for the next in line. That was my "opportunity" to say goodbye.

Standard North American Funeral Home


I've recently interviewed a few local people who have lost loved ones this year in San Juan. The first was an accidental encounter. Diego, a barber, had recently lost his son a few weeks before my first cut with him. Having no idea, I walked into his shop for a trim and a shave. He was slow at his job and finally apologized for his rusty craftsmanship with the blade after nicking my face a few times. "I haven't worked in 30 days", he said.

"Oh, why is that?" I replied.

I looked up into the mirror and saw his chin trembling while he steadied his weak body on my shoulder with his hand.

"How old are you?"


"My son was just a bit younger than you..."

And that was all he could say; tears flooded down his wrinkled cheeks, and I was instantly sharing the moment with him. I shook the hair off the apron around me and reached over it to wipe my face and nose.

We wept together uncontrollably. I was able to feel Diego's loss as though it were mine. So thankful I was to share this time with this beautiful and old stranger. I realized this hadn't been the first time since arriving in San Juan, where the emotion of loss had overcome me in this way. Loss is not exempt in a community where everyone seems to share everything—it's a one-for-all and all-for-one type of deal.

A few weeks later, I returned and met his other son. He shared with me how brutal the death had been for his parents and how they were now taking care of their orphaned grandchild. The small boy played around us as we spoke. He explained the local traditions and the nine days of mourning to me.

I look forward to diving into further detail with all of you in the book I am writing "Death in the Mountains."

For now, l hope to share just a portion of the emotion and connection that jumping into this topic has brought me to this people group, the Tz'utujil.


Owen Dargatz is a Canadian author living in Guatemala with his wife and five kids. He will soon be launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the research and launching of his book "Death in the Mountains." A deep look at the Mayan people and their death, burial, and mourning traditions.

Stay tuned to pre-purchase a copy and help fund this publishing!


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