Día de los Muertos and COVID-19 in Latin America: Honouring the dead during a pandemic
Burial rituals are fundamental to the identity of many communities. Claiming over 1 million lives so far, COVID-19 has considerably disrupted the way funerals are traditionally carried out around the world. The rules designed to protect the living have erected barriers to grieve the dead.
This feature by National Geographic, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, takes a closer look at the profound impacts – cultural and religious – Covid-19 has had on Guatemalan, Mexican and Peruvian communities.
Century-old traditions of gathering around drinks, songs and the sharing of memories, or of executing wills and visiting graves, all point to the belief that, in many cultures, the dead are not disconnected from us forever; instead, they remain an integral part of communities and society.
What is it that leads us to place such a degree of importance on the dead? Why do we make such efforts to ensure a respectful resting place for those that have departed this life? I believe that the importance we place on the dead reflects our humanity at its very core.
Oran Finegan, ICRC Head of Forensics
It is particularly visible in Latin America, where traditions related to the deceased are strong. Bereaved by the hundreds of thousands of people who have been reported missing in connection with past and present armed conflicts, continued armed violence, the constant tide of migration and natural disasters, the region's COVID-19 death rates are also among the highest.
The COVID-19 crisis is a major cause of distress for families who could not even visit loved ones in the hospital and who then died. To compound the grief, some families couldn't locate the remains of their deceased relative because some mortuaries have been overwhelmed. Imagine losing a parent and then not being able to find and bury them. It's happening, and it carries deep consequences for people's mental and physical well-being.
Sophie Orr, Regional Director, Americas
The pandemic and preventative measures enforced to contain it have impacted funeral rites differently across cultures and communities. In Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, Día de los Muertos is widely celebrated as an opportunity for friends and family to honour their departed loved ones by going to the cemetery and giving offerings that help them along in their journey.
Every day, ICRC and National Societies see the respect that different societies give to the dead through their customs and formal ways through their national legislative frameworks. Underlying this honour and respect for the dead is a recognition of human dignity.
The work being done to support the dignified burials and the ceremonies that are central to spiritual life is crucial, no matter the circumstances. Often people don't see the importance of forensics until the death of a mother, a brother, or a child. Then, how a body is handled is of outmost importance.
In conflict zones and regions affected by armed violence, where limited capacity to properly handle high numbers of deaths can make the situation even more dire, as well as in other situations of violence, the ICRC engages with governments to ensure dignified burials can continue. We also work together with the communities, National Societies and local authorities to guarantee the appropriate sanitary steps are followed to limit the risk of contamination.
International humanitarian law and international criminal law provide for the respect of mortal remains as a concretization of the general obligation to protect the dignity of persons, with relevant obligations towards them. The rights of families of the dead to mourn, visit gravesites and generally allowing them to perform burials in accordance with their beliefs, has also been recognized by International Human Rights' courts and tribunals.
The ICRC Forensic Unit honours deceased victims and their families by promoting the proper and dignified management of the dead, reminding concerned actors that the dead should have their identities returned to them, and that their remains should be returned to their families.
- Read more about the Protection of the dead through forensic action
- Download the Guidance and recommendations for authorities and forensic institutions for the dignified management of the dead during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Read more about the Missing in Latin America
- Watch What happens if cemeteries can't cope
- Watch Forensic work, restoring family links