A Few Cemetery Guidelines for the Uninitiated
Since it’s getting closer to that time of year when some people like to visit cemeteries more frequently...and since several things for Santisima Muerte are done in the cemetery any time of the year...I suppose I should throw out some tips for spiritual safety and protection. The following is general information that I’ve received over the years throughout my training in the various traditions I hold. None of it will be specific to any tradition, therefore none of it will be “secrets” I’m giving out. These concepts and tips are commonly found within many of the Afro-Caribbean and New World living folk traditions, although the spirits and details vary from tradition to tradition. If you’ve been initiated and/or trained in tradition that employs the cemetery, then stick with what you were taught. This is more for those who are starting out or those who haven’t yet received the spiritual license and protection many of the initiations of these traditions provide. Also, just because these are general tips from different traditions, please don’t try to use them to create your own hodge-podge practice. For example, don’t use this information to petition Oya at the gate of the cemetery, so you can walk up to the central cross to honor Baron Samdi, then proceed to a grave calling on Exus and Pomba Giras to team up with Santisima Muerte to help you kill someone. Please don’t try that. Instead, you can use what you find here for simple honoring of the dead, collecting cemetery dirt, when you need to take something to the cemetery for Santisima Muerte, and to generally protect yourself when you feel like taking an afternoon stroll through the domain of the dead.
Denizens of the Cemetery
To give you an idea as to what you need protection from, let’s look at who and what can be found in and around the cemetery. First and foremost, there is the cemetery gatekeeper. This is the spiritual being who controls the flow in and out of the cemetery for many spirits and who should always be recognized and paid by a living person before entering. Failure to do so can result in the gatekeeper allowing nasty spirits to leave the cemetery with you and follow you home to cause trouble. Don’t snub the gatekeeper, as he/she performs a vital role in keeping young and confused spirits from wandering out of the cemetery and moving in with you! If you’re part of a tradition already, you’re going to work with your tradition’s gatekeeper. If not, don’t worry, just keep it simple and respectful, and devotees of Santisima Muerte can call on her to intercede on their behalf.
By far the majority of the spirits encountered within the cemetery walls are the ones you would expect, the dead. Not all the dead buried here will be present, but a lot of them will be. Who are these folks? Well, they’re people, like you and me, just without bodies or a sense of linear time/space. Some may be confused, sad, angry, desperate, whatever. The spirits of those who haven’t moved on to where ever it is they go or haven’t accepted they’re dead will be the ones encountered easily and randomly. Their spirits many times linger near their body, whether they know it or not. If you happen to get the attention of these spirits the results can vary. They may try to take their anger out on you, or try to get your attention to help them, or follow you home to be near someone.
Just above the general dead in risk level are the spirits who realize they’re dead and have over time began to learn how to use this to their advantage. They’ve started to figure out how things work and how to get what they need from the living. Again, these can be the spirits of many types of people, including drug addicts, alcoholics, and murderers. They can from time to time leave the cemetery after the sun sets, with the permission of the gatekeeper, but usually they have to return by morning, unless they can find a person or place that they can latch onto. A person walking home drunk in the middle of the night tends to be a favorite.
Beyond those just mentioned, the more advanced and elevated spirits of the dead have a higher potential for being dangerous. Typically, they’re much older and have been around the block quite a few times, and by a few times I mean centuries. They can also leave their own cemetery and go into others with little trouble. Some of them may have been spiritual workers in life and decided to stay around the physical realm to continue working for people in exchange for payment(s). Lacking a strict set of ethics they must abide by, they can be very tricky and typically have their own interests at heart. Tricksters are among these spirits, the ones who can pretend to be higher spirits, deities, and even sometimes try to imitate Santisima Muerte in order to receive service from people.
Further up the hierarchy we encounter those who rule over the cemetery, and generally the threat level goes down for most living people, especially those who have not been initiated into any specific priesthood or magical order. These spiritual beings heed little attention to the majority of the living. It’s the priests and sorcerers who have to deal with them to grant permission for any major workings to be done in their domain. However, an untrained, uninitiated person dabbling around the cemetery without showing proper respect is likely to attract some attention from these beings, with the possibility of them sending some of the more dangerous spirits home with that person to teach some harsh lessons.
The last spirits I feel I need to mention are the ones that really should be a concern to most people, experienced or novice. These are dark, twisted spirits of that are full of and induce anger, hate, malice, obsession, addiction, and more. Spirits, some of which were once people and some that never were, who for whatever reason have been transformed into something far from human and closely resemble what most people in the Western world would consider a demon. They can be found dwelling in an abandoned crypt in the cemetery or lurking in shadows outside the walls. These spirits rarely seek out living victims on their own, but they can be sent by some of the more advanced ones to do whatever work needs to be done. Regardless, it’s best to always be protected when going anywhere these spirits might be.
Cemetery Precautions and Guidelines
Before you even leave your house to go to the cemetery, you should exercise caution by covering your head. The head is the seat of the soul, in many spiritual systems, and covering it while in the cemetery is one of the easiest, yet most important, things you can do to protect yourself. (As a side note, this can also be applied anytime you go somewhere that more than likely can be a source of negative spirits and influences, such as a hospital, bar, or jailhouse, or when you journey out at night.) You can wear a hat, baseball cap, head wrap, bandana, whatever. If you want to make it a little stronger, sprinkle a few drops of holy water inside the hat or cap or on the cloth before putting it on. Wear whatever protective jewelry, including scapulars, holy medals, or whatever else you may have. Place in your pockets whatever protective objects you have made or had made for you. It wouldn’t hurt to have a small bag of salt on you, as well. If you have any open wounds, bandage and cover them. Finally, make sure you have pennies or some other coins to use as simple payment for entry into the cemetery and to leave as offerings or payment for whatever you’re doing.
When you approach the cemetery gate (or where the gate should be), pause and knock three times. Announce who you are (you don’t have to do it out loud) to the gatekeeper and ask permission to enter. Drop three coins and walk in (the number of coins in addition to offerings vary from tradition to tradition, but for something simple, three is a good number.) Some people walk in backwards to prevent being identified, but for simple visits this isn’t really a concern. If you’re just there to walk around or visit a loved one’s grave, you’ve pretty much done all you need to do. Just be respectful while you’re there. Don’t speak ill of the dead, and act as if you’re in someone else’s home—because you are.
If you’ve come to leave offerings or deposit a working (be careful with this until you have more experience and training from an experienced teacher/godparent under your belt!), find the location you’re looking for, leave the offerings or work, leave the payment, take three steps backwards, turn, and walk away without looking back. And as you leave the cemetery it might be a good idea to take out that little bag of salt and throw some behind you over your shoulder after you’ve gone a few steps through the gate. You may also want to take a cleansing bath when you get home—it helps if you’ve already made it beforehand and it’s ready the moment you arrive. Also, in these cases it would help to have a line of salt placed across the threshold of your door before you leave. (If you haven’t noticed by now, salt is very effective in protecting against many spirits of the dead, the less elevated ones, that is.) These last few steps of should also be done if you’ve decided to go and clean up some gravesites, as some people like to do around All Souls’ Day. It’s not always a great idea to go home and relax covered in cemetery dirt.
Going to the cemetery at night is when extra precautions should be taken, and this really shouldn’t be done by a novice or untrained person. Nighttime is when many spirits of the dead are more active, along with the others discussed earlier. Those tips I just mentioned should be done anytime you decide to visit the boneyard after the sun sets. Be careful and listen to your instincts. If you get an uneasy feeling while there, just leave. Again, I stress finding a competent teacher or godparent to guide you before doing anything in the cemetery after dark.
The signs that you’ve picked up something from the cemetery or something’s followed you home can vary greatly. However, they usually include restlessness, paranoia, difficulty sleeping, unpleasant dreams, lack of energy, sudden illness, unusual mood swings, among other unpleasantries. If you experience a combination of these symptoms after doing anything in a cemetery, seek out a competent person who can determine what the problem is and provide a solution. A cleansing of your body, along with your home, will take care of most problems, but if you’re not experienced I highly suggest finding someone who can do this for you. Most likely they will charge you, because it is time and work, along with exposing themselves to the problem, but most of the time it’s well worth it.
Please have an exciting, but safe, season of the dead!