Choo Ba’ak, Campeche’s Day of the Dead bone-cleaning tradition

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Traditional bone cleaning, or Choo Ba’ak, as it is known in the town of Pomuch in the Mexican state of Campeche dates back to the time of the Maya.

Women clean the bones and skulls of their deceased relatives from the Uitz Poot family at the cemetery of Pomuch. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus

To the eyes of outsiders, this tradition may seem macabre, but for the people of Pomuch, it is a way to reconnect with their dearly departed and celebrate their ancient ancestry.

Since 2017 the tradition of Choo Ba’ak is considered part of the cultural heritage of the State of Campeche. Photograph by Bénédicte Desrus

This ritual, which in Mayan is known as Choo Ba’ak, can be done after a person has been dead for three years.

The entrance of the Pomuch Cemetery in Campeche state, Mexico on Oct. 22, 2022. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus
Pomuch and a handful of other Mayan communities are believed to be the only places in the country where people clean the bones of the dead. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus
Women of the Uitz Poot family at the cemetery of Pomuch clean the bones of their deceased relatives. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus
Members of the Kuk Pech family at the cemetery of Pomuch. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus

The cleaning of the bones is done with great care, as they become more and more brittle over time.

José Alfredo Yam Vargas cleans the bones and skull of his brother-in-law, who died in February 2019. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus

Once cleaned, the bones are placed in special boxes, often decorated with embroidered patterns and the name of the individuals there contained or their family name.

People across the Yucatán Peninsula believe that during Hanal Pixán, the spirits of their families are able to return to the realm of the living to enjoy a feast. Photo: Bénédicte Desrus

Viewing remains of the dead can seem rather extreme to some, but one would be wise to withhold judgment without understanding its full cultural context.

Contemporary Maya are known for mixing ancient beliefs with those of contemporary Christianity and Catholicism. Photo: Bénédicte Desr
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