New Mexico’s Death Rituals

Author – Ana Pacheco

Spirituality, Last Ceremonies and the Afterlife

New Mexico’s harsh terrain, countless wars and epidemics were a challenging and fascinating environment for the many cultures and people who settled there. When tragedy struck, their faith and religious rituals allowed them to mourn, celebrate and commemorate their dead. From Pueblo Indians and Spanish colonists to Jewish immigrants and American veterans, many old traditions have endured and blended into modern society. The area is also home to many unique death sites, including the graves of Smokey Bear and Billy the Kid, and the largest contemporary collection of human bones in the world. Author Ana Pacheco guides you through the history of Christmas death rituals, roadside descansos, communal smallpox graves, Civil War memorials and more.

Pages: 144


The unrelenting pace of life in the 21st century has accelerated the Hispanic tradition of death rituals in New Mexico. Traditionally, the funeral grew into a three-day event allowing time on the first day for a visitation with the dead, on the evening of the second day a communal rosary was held with the deceased and their family present. On the last day the funeral mass was held followed by a celebration of life gathering. Today, many families live in distant cities and have busy work schedules that don’t allow for the lengthy funeral process. Now the visitation, rosary, funeral and reception are all held on the same day, so that people can get back to the business of life.

When families come to town to visit their departed loved one they have a convenient grave finder app at their disposal. New Mexicans have been quick to adopt some of more popular death rituals now available like cremation, green burials and contributions to science through body donation. In the neighboring state of Colorado in the city of Crestone, the only sanctioned open-air pyre in the United States provides an alternative option to a regular cremation. The Maxwell Museum at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque has the largest contemporary collection of human bones in the world. The museum allows families to visit the bones of their loved ones who now reside in their collection.

One aspect of the Hispanic death ritual in New Mexico that has gone unchanged is the descanso, the roadside memorial described in the second chapter of this book. Not only have these public shrines grown to include other cultures, their popularity has spread throughout the country. The proliferation of these makeshift tributes has created such controversy that many states have enacted laws that either protect or condemn these remembrances to the dead.

Along with the expedited funeral, New Mexico has become part of the growing trend of “Death Tourism” in the state. Around the globe historic places associated with death and tragedy have historically been are touted as destination trips. Tourists want to experience the dark history of the mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico, the catacombs in Paris, the genocide museum in Rwanda and the tombs of ancient Egypt, to name a few. Two of the most widely visited sites in New Mexico are the graves of Smokey Bear in the Capitan Mountains and Billy the Kid’s grave at Ft. Sumner. Also located at Ft. Sumner is the Bosque Redondo Memorial that was created in 2005 in remembrance to the hundreds of Mescalero Apache and Navajo Indians who died there from 1864 –1868 under the “auspices” of the U.S. government. Coincidently, the Bosque Redondo Memorial is located on Billy the Kid Road.