Marcos Lopez Macal is a psychologist from Guatemala, currently living in Malmö, Sweden. He completed his master thesis, Two Worldview Perspectives on Death: Mayan and Swedish Attitudes on Death, in 2018 at Lund University. He has working experience in Guatemala, El Salvador, Tanzania and Norway; in Guatemala he worked closely with Mayan communities, learning from their society, traditions, culture and worldview.
This interview took place on the 13th of June, 2018.
“Death is always there. You really can’t avoid it. You can ignore it, but it’s always there because death and life go together, it is part of what life is. If you look at nature you will always find it, animals and plants die and are reborn, and we die a little every day. Cells die, and new cells are being born, it’s a normal thing, it is part of the process of existence. Nowadays, you don’t discuss the subject of death a lot, especially in Western society. And in Guatemala if you go to the rural areas where there are more Mayan people, there is a whole different mentality. Death is very celebrated. It’s a different thing, it is not hidden.”
“I wanted a thesis topic that anybody could have an opinion. If you talk to anyone right now about death, that person may have an opinion. That’s what makes me think that death is the most equal thing, regardless of class, religion, state, race, wherever you are, you will die. Also, people benefit from talking. When you talk about death, you talk about life. In Latin there is a saying ‘memento mori.’ It means, remember that you will die. And that is an invitation for you think about how you’re living.”
“This is a funny story. When I was interviewing one of the Mayan participants, they stopped the interview, and I thought I did something wrong. But instead, that person said, ‘wait! Do you have a camera? Take it out now! Come, come, come!’ And I was taken to this amazing thing happening.
There’s a coffin, and the whole community walking around the village beside it. Women, children and men. And here’s a roof, where a lot of children were walking. My participant started pointing at the procession and saying ‘quick! quick! Take a picture!’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to offend anybody!’ And the participant kept urging, ‘take a picture! This is good for you!’”
“And here is a picture of the cemetery,
Look at this cemetery, look how colorful it is. When you go to other Mayan cemeteries they are even more colorful. And what’s also beautiful about it is how it contrasts with nature around it. So you see this embedded mentality about death.”
“I think death could be celebrated more in Sweden. You can celebrate it in many ways. You don’t have to do it with masks and everything like in Mexico, because it would be very strange to see Swedish people do that. But, you can, for example, celebrate through simple things like food. Swedish people love food. So you could honor loved ones who have passed away by cooking their favorite food on a significant date. That’s something that helps you rekindle memories, regardless of what you believe. Mayans do that. On the day that a person died, on a special occasion or on the day of the dead, they prepare food for their loved ones. And they will tell you, ‘we know that that person will not come back and eat it, but, that beautiful aroma, incense, maize, whatever, that reaches them in the afterlife, that is a way of remembering and honoring the dead.’ And if you read a bit of psychology, you will see that smell triggers memory very well. You can use that in grief. The smell of your loved one’s favorite food, it can bring something special back. This doesn’t even require a religious experience of death.”
“I think that as a psychologist the most important thing I’ve found in grieving is to have a network of people you can talk to. Or someone you can just be with that is just there that can listen and affirm that you’re not alone. And for the Mayans, it’s their community. It’s amazing, they have an entire system for death. For example, when someone dies, you hear a bell coming from the church. At first, I had ignored that bell when it sounded, because where I grew up there were many churches around. So, my ears just ignore church bells. So, the bells rang, and people started looking up and pausing. And they would say, ‘oh, an old person died.’ And I would ask, ‘how do you know that?’ and they would say, ‘well, the bells from the church. The chime is long. If it is long, it is an old person. If it is short, it is a child.’ And that happens every time someone passes away. The community will always know if someone dies. And what happens then? Well, people start going to the church and asking who died. And then by order of gossip, they will all know. And then they go to that person’s house, and start giving food, money, coffee, and start preparing for a big event. And when you ask the loved ones about their experience when their family member died, they would always say, ‘the community never let us feel alone.’ And these are not like small villages, they are like towns, like Lund for example. There is a big population of Mayans in Guatemala, maybe around nine million if not more and they have so much to teach, there is a lot to be learned from them.
Sometimes, if for example, a mayor dies, who was well regarded in the community, everything stops. And people come to say goodbye. And they go immediately. No email to send or work that has to come first. No, they just go to show their support. And maybe that’s the point. They give death a space. They give death the time. They dedicate something to it. They acknowledge that it exists. It could be the whole village, easily, a couple of hundred or a thousand people. Several people had told me during research, laughing, that you will never die alone here, it just does not happen. But they see a reciprocity also. How you treat your parents, you will be treated also. So if you don’t leave your parents alone when they are older, so your children wont leave you alone when you are older. Two things that don’t exist in Mayan society: elderly homes, and funeral homes. They sell the caskets, but that’s it. And they don’t want those other institutional things. If you ask them about it, they say they take care for their own: ‘I want my mother here’ and ‘I want my father here.’ It’s a very clear answer. Of course society is built here in a very different way, so it wouldn’t work. But there’s still something to learn there. And also, children are participants in the process. There are legends and stories passed down that teach them about life and death. And in this way parents train their children to cope with death through oral tradition. So when death comes they are not surprised, they know what needs to happen. They know the traditions that need to occur and how things need to be prepared, they know that if they need help with buying the coffin or something else that they will not be alone and that is a comfort Mayan society offers.
We live very hectic lives. And we don’t always create a space for death. When it comes, its common in Sweden that it takes up to a month for the burial to occur. In Mayan tradition, that would never happen. You make time, no matter what. If you had a vacation, sorry you’re not going. Put it on hold, because this is happening right now. This has to be treated right now. And its not bad, its not that people feel sad because they could not work or go to vacation, they know they did what needed to be done, they gave priority to what is important, which is to give life and death its proper space and respect.”