Descansos–“resting places”

While out for a walk recently, we passed by a vehicle parked along the street with a memorial decal on the back window.  These are much more common here in New Mexico than you might think.

It reminded me of another interesting part of New Mexico culture, the roadside memorials called descansos, meaning “resting places.”

I did a little research on the internet and found some history on the website Descansos, which contains a photo perspective of these memorials.  The following is an excerpt from the website:

THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos (“resting places”). Traditionally, Descansos were memorials erected at the places where the funeral procession paused to rest on the journey between the
church and the cemetery. The association thus created between the road, the interrupted journey, and death as a destination, eventually found expression in the
practice of similarly marking the location of fatal accidents on the highway.

“THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

“Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough-hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

“The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

“Rested, the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots.”

“Introduction/Dios da y Dios quita”, from “Descansos: An Interrupted Journey”, by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte, 1995).

photo credit: Descansos:  Roadside Memorials on the American Highway

(Many thanks to that great website for insight into a facet of New Mexico culture)

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