November 2nd: Some know it as All Souls’ Day.  In Mexico, it’s El Día de Los Muertos.  In Ecuador, it’s called El Día de Los Difuntos, or Day of the Deceased.  No matter what you call it, it’s an important holiday in the Latino culture celebrating family both dead and alive.  Ecuador likes to extend this holiday through a long weekend and has a unique set of traditions to celebrate it in a big way.

First, El Día de los Difuntos is the day to remember relatives, both living and dead.  Families do this by gathering all together at the cemetery.  On this day, some believe that the souls of their relatives return to their gravesite to reconnect with family.  Since death is seen as a natural progression of life, the souls of the deceased are still living, just not in a body on Earth.  Therefore, it’s important for those of us in this life to keep in touch with them, as these dead relatives can care for
and protect those who are still on Earth.
With this in mind, I asked a teacher friend to take me to the cemetery and explain more about the traditions.  On the way, oodles of vendors were selling real and fake flower wreaths and bouquets, sentimental cards, religious blessings, toys and trinkets.  Part of the tradition is to fill the gravesite with things your relatives love.     

Another important part of the tradition is “Guaguas de Pan”.  Pronounced “Wa-Wa”, these bread rolls are shaped and decorated as swaddled babies. “Guagua” is an indigenous word for “baby”. Sometimes, you might see more fancy representatives of dolls for girls, and horses for boys.  Often, these bread rolls are left by the graves, but many more are shared among the family.  For at least three weeks leading up to this holiday, every bakery on every corner was promoting their special “Guaguas”.  The bread is sweet and yummy, sometimes filled with a fruit marmalade.

Some families bring food to share, leaving a plate for the deceased.  This stand is selling typical “hornado” or pulled pork.  Bringing platters of food is most prominently done in the cemeteries of the Indigenous families.  I chose not to go to that type of cemetery with my camera, because I felt I would be too obtrusive taking photos of families sitting amongst the gravestones eating, 
while connecting to the afterlife.  Instead, I went to a Mestizo cemetery, made up of primarily Catholic and other Christian families of mixed European ancestry.  
These families tend to bring gifts to the cemetery, but not food.
One of the first things I heard as I entered the cemetery was the bells.  People stand in long lines to ring the bells to honor their relatives, or call the spirits of their family home. 
I wandered through two different cemeteries for most of the morning, watching families gather together to clean the glass, replace the momentos, repaint the lettering on the gravestones,
laugh and pray together.  I was so touched by this beautiful tradition
to just take a day out of our busy lives to pause and remember. 

This gravesite was filled with planted pots of flowers and cut flowers placed right into the ground.  Obviously this person is very loved!

At the end of the day, the cemeteries were beautiful. 
Something else I learned on this day, was that in Ecuadorian culture, it’s very common to bury a person in a cemetery, renting the plot or the tomb for perhaps 10 or more years.  Then, the family gathers together for a ceremony to exhume the body.  The remaining bones are placed in a much smaller box and either returned to a smaller tomb in the cemetery or interred in a church or other location.  Remember, there is no spiritual reason against this practice since your relatives are still living in the afterlife.  They don’t need their Earthly body any longer.  
The practical reason to do this is to save space, so the cemeteries never fill up.  
Yet another example of the incredible resourcefulness of this country!
Around the cemetery, I also saw many vendors selling bunches of herbs.  I wondered what this was.  The next day…. I found out!  Stay tuned for El Día de los Difuntos, Part 2 in my next post!