POMUCH, Mexico (AP) — For dozens of Mayan Indians in this village on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, the last days of October are devoted to cleaning the bones of the dearly departed.
Mexicans honor the dead on Nov. 1 and 2 with meals, songs and prayers both at home and at cemeteries. But Pomuch and a handful of other Mayan communities dotting Yucatan's Camino Real Alto region are believed to be the only places in the country, and perhaps the world, where people clean the bones of the dead.
On Thursday, housewife Graciela Miranda Chi removed loose, dusty patches of hair from the skull of her grandfather. She wiped away black grit with a paintbrush before reaffixing the hair and returning the remains to a wooden box.
Modern-day Maya in the Camino Real Alto initially treat death much as other Western cultures do, by burying their dead in coffins. But after three or four years, they remove the remains, dry the now-separated bones in the sun and scrub them clean with a soft cloth or small paintbrushes.
Although no one knows precisely when it began, the custom is thought to date back to the pre-Hispanic era.
Cemetery employee Bonifacio Tun Tuz charges $1.50 to clean bones for families who don't have time and to replace the embroidered handkerchiefs used to wrap each set of remains.
Tun Tuz said the charge is for him "to put the handkerchiefs in the little boxes and clean the bones and put everything back the way it should be."
For days before the Day of the Dead celebrations, and for weeks afterward, family members put flowers and lighted votive candles in front of the boxes, which are left open to view.