- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

GUARERO, Venezuela Family members gather around the tomb as the bones of a cherished son are removed gently and washed with whiskey and champagne. After two days of hard drinking and prayer, the remains are put back into the tomb to join ancestors.

For generations beyond remembering, the Wayuu Indians of northern Colombia and Venezuela have celebrated this ancient rite the reburying of the dead. But the ritual, which has evolved to include liquor and a Catholic Mass, is fading from their dry, wind-swept land as most of the 300,000-member Wayuu nation take on modern ways.

Anthropologists say the Wayuu hold the ceremony to prevent the souls of the dead from having to wander the Earth eternally. But the members of the Paz clan had trouble explaining the tradition when they gathered in this desert town near Venezuela's border with Colombia to rebury one of their own.

Many family members said the ceremony performed for a 29-year-old father of four who was murdered nine years ago was their last.

"Most of us are professionals now," explained Anelsy Paz, a sister of the dead man. "I think this is the last time."

Tradition prohibits mentioning the name of the deceased once his or her body is exhumed. Some family members asked the AP team that was invited to the ceremony to respect the custom.

The ceremony begins before dawn, because the old women who guard the traditions say the dead don't like daylight. A cousin, a dental hygienist from Maracaibo, was chosen to clean the bones. She began by downing a shot of whiskey, and then another.

"I have to be drunk. That's not new that's traditional, the way they always did it," said Floriana Paz, lifting a blue paper surgical mask with a latex-gloved hand so she could swig her whiskey.

The women gathered around as Floriana Paz went to work. The men hung back, some wearing cowboy hats, with pistols tucked into their belts, standard equipment in the lawless frontier region. They pulled bottles of whiskey from a pickup truck to keep the liquor flowing.

As the casket was pulled out of the tomb, the dead man's mother wept, covering her face with a scarf.

Anthropologist Wilder Guerra says the Wayuu believe the reburial reunites the dead with their ancestors. If the ceremony isn't performed usually a decade or so after a death it is believed the soul of the deceased is condemned to wandering the land without peace.

Floriana Paz carefully stripped the remaining flesh from each bone, though she was a bit vague on the meaning of the ritual.

"It's a beautiful tradition," she said. "But we're very Westernized; I was married to an American. We don't live this way anymore."

When she finished the cleaning, the bones were packed into a marble box. The older women, many in their 70s and 80s with wrinkles carved in suntanned faces, gathered around the box for what the Wayuu called the "Second Sob." Weeping in a ritualized singsong, they covered their faces.

Children scooted in and out of the group, laughing and playing, oblivious to the ancient ritual. The younger women and all the men stood at a distance and watched.

The marble box was taken to the family ranch and placed on a flower-strewn altar in a thatch-roofed pavilion.

The oldest women sat vigil, some weeping over the box. Others chatted quietly in Wayuu, exchanging family gossip and recalling the days of bride prices, when a Wayuu groom had to come up with enough cattle and gold to cover the cost of maintaining his widow should he die.

A Catholic priest came to celebrate Mass.

Some 400 friends and relatives turned out for the two-day feast at the ranch. Twenty women cooked regional specialties, including stewed goat and mutton, homemade cheese, plantains and yucca, and a dish made from cow's blood. Out of respect for the dead, there was no music, but the gathering was kept well-lubricated with 40 cases of whiskey and plentiful beer.

Anelsy Paz, the dead man's sister, spent three months preparing for the gathering, mostly out of respect for her ailing 72-year-old mother, Dionisia Paz.

"I wanted to do this before I died," the older woman said. "My daughters wouldn't have done it after I go. This is over now."

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