Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Bolivian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Chilean funeral traditions and South Korean funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Before a Bolivian funeral service, there is a wake at a family member’s home. During the wake, mourners gather to grieve while eating, drinking, and sometimes smoking cigarettes. These festivities may go throughout the night and then the next day is the funeral service and burial.
Traditionally, families who lived near the city of La Paz did a ritual funeral hike to the Choqueyapu River. They washed the deceased’s clothes in the river and then had a picnic while the clothes dried. Once dried, they burned them in a bonfire by the riverbank. They believed this helped the deceased’s soul get into the afterlife.
Bolivian Funeral Service
Since Catholicism is Bolivia’s most common religion with 76% of the population, a Bolivian funeral usually follows Catholic traditions. Along with these traditions, they also have a mix of traditional Bolivian funeral rituals.
Respect and generosity are both important in the Bolivian culture. To show their respect for the deceased, families may have expensive and extravagant funerals. They also have a mourning feast with fresh veggies and beef, chicken, or pork to show their generosity.
Throughout the first year after their passing, the family also has four masses to mourn and show respect for the deceased.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day
To honor the deceased, they prepare ritual food and drink offerings for the souls. Offering food at these festivals, funerals, and other significant events is another important aspect of the Bolivian culture.
The Day of the Skull Festival
Bolivians also celebrate The Day of the Skull Festival a week after the festivals mentioned above. It’s a happy and sad occasion, as there are mariachi bands, singing, dancing, and praying while everyone’s gathered at the cemetery.
For this festival, families decorate skulls and take them to display at the cemetery. Some families also choose to display them in their homes year-round. They believe the skulls symbolize death and rebirth and bring good luck.
Families may decorate the skulls with flowers, plants, glasses, hats, and other decorations. To protect them, families place them in glass or wooden boxes. They also place candles and other ritual offerings around the skulls.