The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Brazil and across the continent every 2 November, but the event in Sao Paulo was a washout with florists bemoaning their bad luck.
“I made little, very little,” said Sergio, who mans one of a super colourful row of 24-hour flower kiosks outside the gigantic Araca city centre cemetery. “Normally, this is one of the best days of the year for us.”
Inside, still more than 20,000 people made their annual family pilgrimage despite the downpour at the start of summer.
Visiting one of the 35,000 graves, Ana Miranda said she did not mind the weather: “I think that this is the day of the dead and everyone has a way of thinking about those that are dead. It’s a chance for you to go to the grave if you haven’t been for a while, to communicate.”
“We usually come with the family to buy flowers, clean the grave and pray,” she said.
Of rich and poor
“When you work in a cemetery you come to realise that the only definite thing in life is that you are going to die”
Araca is the poor neighbour to the more salubrious cemetery of Consolacao (Consolation in English), with more than 500 famous names from ex-President Washington Luiz to writer Mario de Andrade. People gather around the well-known graves once a year in the belief that they can work miracles.
“This is not a cemetery of stars, this is a cemetery of 35,000 nobodies,” says Fernando, the graveyard keeper, “but you can get a place cheaply and I think that’s very important”.
Fernando is not what you would expect from a cemetery keeper. In his late 20s, he takes calls about parties on his mobile phone and talks passionately about educating people about tombs and their history.
“When you work in a cemetery you come to realise that the only definite thing in life is that you are going to die,” says Fernando, as he guides me on a tour through everything from fantastic mausoleums to basic burial plots, all bursting with exotic blooms.
Natives wiped out
Many florists had hoped to do good
At what seems to be the end of the cemetery, the ground falls away and reveals thousands more graves on the level below and on the one after that.
Although the Day originated from 3,000-year-old indigenous traditions, in Brazil it has a predominantly Catholic flavour, where less than 0.4% of the 177 million in population size is indigenous.
The centre of celebrations in the Americas for the Day of the Dead is in Mexico where the day is a festive not a morbid affair with specially prepared family feasts and offerings of wine and spirits.
Skeleton and skull images abound around candle-lit vigils of guitar and song over the two days of All Saints Day and All Souls Day – and the night in-between.
There is a belief that stems from ancient tribal traditions that the dead come back every year to check up on their families.
The living leave the deceased’s favourite food for their spirit to consume and for the family to eat later.
The connection between a party and death is uncomfortable for some, yet in Latin American culture the Day of the Dead is a not a mocking of the dead but a connection with them, a party with the long gone.
All Saints’ Day focuses on children, whose tiny tombstones are always marked with an angel. The emphasis on children is deep-rooted in Indian culture.
All Soul’s Day concentrates on the adults, whose ‘offerings’ to the dead are more likely to be accompanied by their own stock of food and booze.
Grave structures are sometimes
In Mexico, the day is observed by very strict traditions in rural areas involving intricate ceremonies deciding everything from dress to music to prayers.
In richer areas, the finest cuts of beef are given while in poorer areas it is cigarettes and cheap beer.
“My favourite grave is this one,” says Fernando. He points to a black marbled mausoleum replete with two sculptured figures of Christ. “It’s two different families but the tombs are identical – one copied the other – and now they sit back-to-back.”
He rings the bell five times to call his colleague from across the expanse of the graveyard. It has stayed open an extra hour today, but this is not Mexico.
“People have parties here. It’s not allowed but you can turn a blind eye,” he says. “They can’t get too drunk because I can’t be worried about people coming to see their loved ones with someone asleep on top of the tomb.”
He unlocks and gets a blue file of papers from inside an abandoned grave near to the gates. “Well, you have to leave your things somewhere,” he says.