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The Day of the Dead

November 5, 2011

I had an absolute mare on Tuesday: accidently bought some kind of train card for too much money when I only wanted to pay a single fare, rocked up at one cemetery that wasn’t open yet, got lost and walked in a complete circle on the way to another cemetery, only just got let in to that one, then had to leave to buy batteries for my camera, then finally found out batteries weren’t the problem and actually my camera was broken (I’m open to offers if anyone wants to buy me a new one) — hence no photos to accompany this piece. Use your imagination eh.

Mozart, vampires and graveyards at night

While the night of Tuesday, November 1 marked the beginning of Day of the Dead celebrations across Mexico, Guadalajara appeared no different to normal. Except, that is, in the “haunted” graveyard of Belen.

To mark “El Dia de Los Muertos,” the cemetery, which also runs nighttime tours, was host to a special interpretation of Mozart’s “Requiem” by the Jalisco State Choir. The setting was most appropriate: Belen’s gothic architecture was illuminated in blood red and ghostly blue lighting, which cast strong shadows across the sea of elaborate gravestones and giant, crumbling mausoleums.

The patio was completely full as a large crowd gathered to witness this unique performance. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing the Requiem in Vienna in 1791, but it remained unfinished at the time of his death and was posthumously completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, another Austrian composer.

The local choir of over two dozen performed the work with aplomb. Their haunting tones left the audience shivering but happy. Among the crowd were Dolores Paredes and Dagoberto Becerra, a middle-aged couple from the south of Jalisco.

“The spirits won’t come out with so many people here, they’ll be too scared,” joked Paredes, referring to the ancient belief that every year on this day the spirits of the dead return to earth.

With the clocks having been turned back the previous weekend, it grew dark early. The cemetery was cool beneath the clear, starry night. Huge, gnarled trees gave the site the appearance of a haunted forest, while even the local wildlife did its best to maintain the spooky atmosphere.

The singing was accompanied all the while by a mighty choir of crickets that kept up a relentless serenade of high-pitched chirping. Bats flitted across the night sky and a black cat stirred superstitions by suddenly appearing atop a gravestone midway through the performance.

Guadalajara’s oldest cemetery, the Panteon de Belen once served as the burial ground for the old civil hospital. In 1786, work began to transform the site into a proper cemetery.

The project was finally completed in 1844 by Manuel Gomez Ibarra, the same architect who also designed the city’s iconic Metropolitan Cathedral towers. The plot was divided into two areas in which the souls of the wealthy and the poor resided apart, as in life.

Unlike in larger cemeteries such as Mezquitan, few people come to Belen to leave offerings for relatives, as the graves here are all nearly 200 years old. The only graves marked with candles, marigold flowers and religious images were those of a couple from Paisley, Scotland, who died in 1896 and are believed to bring good luck to those who leave offerings.

Following the performance many of the crowd embarked on the famous graveyard tours. Stalked by hooded figures who slipped silently among the gravestones, the visitors were taken along the perimeter walkway, past the many tombs built into the towering cemetery walls. The tour also included a visit to the mysterious “tomb of the vampire.”

“It’s a local legend,” explained Becerra after the concert. “They say there was a vampire here who was killed with a stake through the heart.” Legend has it that this vampire once stalked the citizens of Guadalajara, with small animals and infants found all over the city drained completely of blood.

Local residents lived in fear, locked themselves indoors after dark and prayed for their lives. Eventually a group of vigilantes decided to hunt down the vampire, and upon capturing him they drove a wooden stake through his heart.

The townspeople then buried the corpse beneath thick concrete slabs in the hope he would never return from the dead. But “from that stake sprouted a tree, which grew out of his tomb,” says Becerra. Sure enough, months later the concrete slabs were broken by a small tree that had grown, ostensibly, from the stake in the vampire’s heart.

The tree still stands to this day. Instead of sap it is said to contain the blood of the vampire’s victims, while at night their faces are supposedly visible in its bark.

The superstitious groundsmen at the cemetery have built a gate around the tree to protect it, for it is thought that if the tree dies the vampire will return to terrorize the city again.

Other Belen ghost stories include that of a haunted tree whose shadow reveals a man hanging on a noose from one of its branches, a boy whose coffin kept reappearing atop of his grave because even in death he was afraid of the dark, and a pirate whose spirit will reappear to reveal the location of his buried treasure to those who light a candle beside his tomb and pray for his soul at midnight.

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