Every year in the week following the Day of the Dead, the citizens of La Paz, Bolivia gather at the chapel of the General Cemetery to celebrate Dia de los Natitas, or the Day of the Skulls. The skulls are carried to the church in glass and wooden boxes and are decorated with flowers, hats, and sunglasses. The festival begins with prayers and offerings then mariachi bands play music in the cemetery gardens.
The festival is a combination of Andean ancestor worship, pre-Columbian customs where people kept skulls as trophies, and Catholic ritual. According to Dr. Josef Estermann, an Andean theology expert (via the BBC), “The rite is now a blend of Catholic and indigenous beliefs, but has its roots in ancient rituals for the death practiced by the country’s Indian groups such as the pre-Inca Aymara and Quechua.”
Because the celebration is neither condoned by the Roman Catholic Church nor explicitly prohibited, a bowl of holy water is left out at the chapel to bless the skulls but a mass is not said.
The skulls for the festival are exhumed from abandoned cemeteries and are passed from person to person. Their guardians often give them nicknames because the name of the original body is lost to history. Many people believe the skulls have the power to grant them favors. Devotees will pray for money, love, good health, or protection and in return they will make offerings of flower petals, cigarettes, and cocoa leaves.
Captain Victor is one of the festival’s most popular attractions. He has burn marks around his mouth from cigarettes, and wears a black beanie embroidered with the name “Victor” under a green policeman’s hat. Captain Victor is owned by a woman named Virginia Laura who was gifted the skull 22 years ago and believes it belonged to a policeman. Victor has followers who have prayed to him for more than 20 years and believe the skull has answered their prayers and protected them.
La Paz celebrates Day of the Skulls. (2009). Retrieved on November 8th, 2014 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8350092.stm
Keating, F. (2013). Bolivia Celebrates Day of Skulls with Graveyard Festivities. Retrieved on November 8th, 2013: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/day-skulls-bolivia-cemeteries-dia-de-los-520876
The Associated Press. (2013). Bolivians bring piles of human skulls to church for annual festival. Retrieved on November 8th, 2013: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/bolivians-bring-human-skulls-church-festival-article-1.1511828