POMUCH, Mexico (Reuters) - Eighty-three-year-old Maya Indian Cenorio Colli gazed lovingly at his wife’s long brown hair and recalled how carefully she combed it when she was still alive.
Then he went back to cleaning her skull and every bone she left behind.
Grieving Maya Indians in a sweltering village deep in the limestone flatlands of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula painstakingly cleaned the remains of their late loved ones on Monday during a unique annual family reunion with the dead.
In a tradition dating back centuries, families in Pomuch exhume their dead after three years in the grave and transfer their dried bones and skulls -- often with hair attached -- to wooden crates on permanent display in open funeral niches.
Every subsequent year in a two-day ritual preceding the November 1 and November 2 Day of the Dead festival, families gather at the brightly painted tombs to replace the boxes’ embroidered cloth linings and give the remains themselves a spruce up.
The festival brings back floods of painful memories for mourning kin struggling with the loss of life companions.
“I was talking to her,” Colli, a widower of nine years, recalled as he lifted his dead wife Concepcion’s brittle pelvis from a large pile of bones and dusted it off with a cloth. “She lowered her head and that was it.”
But the retired farm hand said he took solace from knowing she was at peace. “I feel happy because she died happy.”
According to Mayan beliefs, death is a stage in life in which the deceased evolve into higher, more spiritual beings.
In Pomuch, the dead are believed to be “purified” during the first three years after their death. They are then exhumed and welcomed back as highly respected members of extended families in which past and present generations merge.
Old women in colourfully patterned traditional dresses chattered in the Mayan language on Monday as they fussed over the bones of long lost mothers and the skulls of babies who barely lived a day.
Marta Helena Chipool, 35, lovingly cleaned the remains of a mother-in-law she never met and the twin girls who died with her 40 years ago in childbirth.
“You go to the cemetery and you can see your dead sister, mother and father and talk to them,” said Lazaro Tuz, an anthropologist from Pomuch who has spent years documenting the ritual. “This keeps the family together.”
“The dead person is no longer dead because you can touch him,” he said.
“She is not dead to me, she lives in my heart,” Maria Euan, a 52-year-old woman with braids and bright cross-stich flowers spread across her white blouse, as she and her husband arranged her dead mother’s bone. “This is her party.”
The origins of the ritual, which is celebrated almost exclusively in Pomuch, are murky, and it is unclear whether the practice predates the Spanish conquest of Latin America.
One theory suggests that villagers, faced with an overflowing cemetery, may have begun digging up their dead for sanitary reasons.
Some fear the tradition is dying out as Pomuch’s youth, increasingly hooked on video games, action films and racy reggaeton music, embrace modern culture.
According to village folklore, the spirit of a Pomuch native can become angry and wonder lost through the streets if proper care is not taken of his or her remains.
Martin de Porras cleaned his dead father’s thigh bone, still bearing the shiny metal prosthetic ball joint that made his last months after a road accident misery, and wondered whether his children would do the same for him.
“I can’t make them do it,” he said. “But if they don‘t, I don’t know where I‘m going to end up.”