Photos by Gladys Serrano
Translated by Bernardo Garcia
Posters featuring photographs of the deceased are ubiquitous throughout Humaya.
The tombs of
Jardines del Humaya in the Mexican state of Sinaloa seem to have been inspired by the great pyramids of Egypt. Both sites were built to symbolize the ascent of powerful rulers to heaven, but in Humaya’s case most of the departed oversaw a kingdom of illegal drugs and extreme violence.
Located on the outskirts of Culiacán, the largest city in Sinaloa, this cemetery is the site of grandiose mausoleums that resemble one-bedroom apartments with gaudy elevated domes. Land is sold in blocks of 3.6 by 7.4 feet, the standard size of a Mexican coffin. A popular purchase is three blocks, which sells for about 30 thousand pesos (approximately $2,500). Some of the larger properties even include recreational areas where children can safely play during family visits. Those who commission these structures are willing to spend whatever it takes to ensure that their patriarchs—some politicians and businessmen but mostly Sinaloa’s most infamous traffickers of narcotics—spend the afterlife in a place that reflects their unsustainable lifestyles. If this requires installing central air conditioning and a kitchenette, so be it.
One-upmanship has gotten out of hand in Humaya. Families continually try to build bigger structures than their neighbors, a morbid version of keeping up with the Joneses.
According to Walkyria Angulo, the only expert in the funerary architecture of the region, the eccentricities of these constructions have a very logical explanation: People are bringing the city to the cemetery. “In Culiacán, those building mausoleums tend to copy what they see with the local houses,” she said. “The mix only exists here. It defies categorization.” About five years ago, a hodgepodge minimalist trend began that embraced austere forms and rounded ironwork. The only common theme is the use of marble and acrylic domes, and spending exorbitant amounts of money on the finishing, sculptures, and lighting. Walkyria estimated that one of the more expensive gravesites cost at least 5 million pesos (around $420,000).
In recent years, mausoleum architects have imitated the minimalist trend of modern homes, but extravagant elements like enclosed stairs define a style that is only found here.
The most impressive and elaborate memorials are located deep within the burial grounds, and from the outside the site resembles a modern suburb inspired by chapel architecture. It’s common to spot luxury SUVs parked in front of mausoleums or roaming the streets that divide the structures. The tombs are both garish and thoughtful, prompting one to ponder the gruesome and myriad ways in which these individuals lost their lives and visits to gawk at their legacies.
Some might find it excessive to entomb a loved one inside a two-story edifice covered in plants—roses, dahlias, daisies, and other decorative flowers are frequently arranged along the perimeter—but the celebration of overabundance is precisely the point. Mexico has a rich history of commemorating the dead by celebrating life, and it’s no exception here. Parties with live music that last for days are frequent occurrences on birthdays, novenas, and the Day of the Dead. The festivities are so abundant that local event planners offer to decorate tombs and coordinate truly Dionysian gatherings for the average cost of 35,000 pesos (approximately $3,000), which includes lighting, landscaping, altars, and customized themes. If the departed was a gambler, for instance, his parties might be casino-themed and include a roulette wheel and a craps table. If he particularly enjoyed a certain dish, his family and friends will serve a plate for him at the altar and replace it whenever it becomes stale. But even these indulgences cannot ensure that the residents of Jardines del Humaya will ever be able to rest in peace.
Some of the structures include interior features such as portraits of the deceased and air conditioning.
One of the few cemetery watchmen, who refused to give his name, said that while visitors are usually respectful there is always the threat of danger. He experienced this firsthand when hit men arrived at a burial service to seek retribution on the family of the deceased. The watchman had agreed to help with the service because the graveyard was short-staffed, and as he was opening the coffin a woman yelled, “All men should run!” Before he had a chance to look up, a group of armed men forced him to lie facedown on the ground.
Some of the tombs in Jardines del Humaya house children who died before their time. They’re easy to spot because most are decorated with cartoons or imagery from movies the child enjoyed in life.
“We just came to perform the burial services for this man,” the watchman told his assailants. “We’re workers here. We don’t know what sorts of problems you guys had.”
“I told you to lie down, old cabrón,” the hit man answered before he and his crew abducted eight people who are still missing.
Another incident at the cemetery made headlines in January 2010: A beheaded body was found near the tomb of one of the most nefarious drug lords of the past decade. At the opposite end of the cemetery, close to the mausoleum of yet another important drug figure, the victim’s head was purposefully placed, a decorative flower tucked behind his ear. A worker told the watchman about these findings so that he could inform the police, but instead he chose to keep quiet, which is what most Mexicans do in these situations.
“I told them I couldn’t get involved in those things,” the watchman said. “I’m not interested in that. They’re going to get me involved, and then what am I going to go around saying? I didn’t see anything.” The watchman insisted, however, that the type of incidents he described were rare during his four years of employment at the cemetery.
Jardines del Humaya is at once peaceful and full of unresolved conflict. In some ways, the people buried here are immortal because their existence will continue to affect the lives of others long after they are covered with dirt. But there’s one thing that’s unquestionable: The people who have built this place care about their dead in ways that most of us can’t comprehend.