The last wishes of two champions of the Lacandon culture are finally fulfilled during a re-burial ceremony deep in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. And we were there.
In 1951 Danish historian, anthropologist, explorer, art history teacher, archaeologist, and oil man Frans Blom and his Swiss wife Gertrude “Trudi” Duby Blom, a journalist and mountain climber turned photographer and ecologist, founded the Na Bolom Cultural Association based in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Their goal was to preserve the ways and rights of the indigenous Lacandon people and other indigenous groups in the region and it’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact their documentation, respect, and support have had on these groups. Their legacy is part of the reason the Lacandon, and so many other cultures, still exist in Chiapas today—though with an estimated total population of just 800 people, the Lacandon aren’t out of the woods (or the jungle) yet.
Na Bolom (which means jaguar house) continues in its original non-profit mission. There’s also a wonderful hotel (Henry Kissinger and Diego Rivera have stayed here) with rooms in the main rambling house and dotted throughout a large and lush walled garden. Each one is decorated with traditional weavings, some of Trudi’s extraordinary black and white photographs of the striking Lacandon people, and most also have fireplaces to ward off the high-altitude chill. Rooms are still set aside to accommodate any of indigenous people who may need to overnight in the city and many people use Na Bolom as a kind of drop in club house.
Many of the writings and photographs that Frans and Trudi left behind are displayed in a small but informative on-site museum (open to guests and non-guests and definitely worth a visit for a crash course in the history of the Lacandon and other local indigenous groups).
A visit to the Na Bolom museum also includes a tour of intimate spaces like Frans’ beloved library and Trudi’s bedroom which brings these two larger-than-life characters into sharp focus. We were impressed with the sheer determination and innovation of Frans and Trudi (they definitely seem like “Just Do It” kind of people). We were also impressed with the passion of the staff and volunteers who continue their work, including a massive project to archive and preserve the tens of thousands of photographs that Trudi took in her lifetime.
Last wishes with the Lacandon
Both Frans and Trudi spent a good portion of their time in what is now the Lacandon Jungle and when they died they stated that they wished to be buried in the jungle they knew and loved. Unfortunately, when Frans and Trudi passed (in 1963 and 1993 respectively) the jungle was still virtually impenetrable—especially if you were carrying a coffin–and the Zapatista uprising at the time Trudi died made jungle trekking a complicated business as well.
2011 marked the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Na Bolom and the occasion seemed like the right time to finally lay its founders to rest in the place of their choosing.
We were honored to be invited to travel to the Lacandon village of Nahá with a group from Na Bolom (and, of course, the remains of Frans and Trudi) to witness a very special ceremony to re-bury the Na Bolom founders in the Nahá cemetery next to Chan K’in Viejo, a legendary Lacandon leader and friend to Frans and Trudi who died in 1996 at the age of 104.
A once-in-a-lifetime Lacandon ceremony
Among the group of devoted people from Na Bolom who traveled to Nahá was a woman named Doña Betty. As a child she was informally adopted by the Bloms (there’s a photo of Betty as a young woman in Trudi’s bedroom at Na Bolom) and she often made mule trips with them into this jungle where she worked as the camp cook.
On this occasion Doña Betty returned to familiar territory, running the camp kitchen (and accepting very little help) to feed the 25 people or so in our group. Doña Betty is in her late 70s now and she appeared to be as respected by many of the Lacandon as Frans and Trudi were.
Our group camped on land given to Trudi by the Lacandon. Nearby, the Lacandon of Nahá have also built a handful of bungalows available to the scant tourists who make it out here (Na Bolom can arrange complete tours). The camping area consists of a long tin-roof covered shelter with a level dirt floor. The roof (and the drainage ditch dug around the perimeter of the shelter which was methodically-maintained by a mute Lacandon) proved crucial given the epic downpours that pelted us while we were there.
The camp also has an open-sided cooking/dining area (Doña Betty’s domain) plus an outhouse. All in all, more than adequate and far more comfort than we expected way out here in the Lacandon Jungle.
A final journey with the Lacandon
Frans and Trudi made their final journey to Nahá and their beloved Lacandon Jungle in a pair of child-sized beautifully carved wooden caskets made specifically for their remains which were removed from their original graves in San Cristóbal de las Casas along with their enormous concrete headstone with a jaguar and a Mayan cross carved into it.
At 11 am the morning after our arrival our group headed for Chan K’in Antonio’s house. As the son of Chan K’in Viejo, Chan K’in Antonio is the most devout keeper of Lacandon traditions. But he is not a shaman. Rather he believes that he, like all Lacandon, can speak directly to the Lacandon gods and request help and favors. Better health. Better wealth. But there are no guarantees and there are certainly no miracles.
Chan K’in Antonio is one of the few Lacandon to have a God House (something many Lacandon used to have) and this is where the pre-burial ceremony took place. We filed into the God House, a 20′ by 15′ open-sided, dirt-floored, thatch-roof structure, and women sat on one side with men seated on the other. Almost everyone in the God House was part of our group from San Cristóbal de las Casas. Where were the people from Nahá we wondered.
Chan K’in Antonio jumped right in with chanting in the fast-disappearing Lacandon language and distributing drops of balche (more on that later) to molded figures representing the Lacandon gods. Each also received a small hand-formed ball of copal which was ultimately lit on fire.
The ceremony culminated in the drinking of balche, a beverage made of wild honey fermented for days in a wooden canoe. Balche is a cloudy, beige, sweet and sour vaguely slimy liquid. Not unpleasant, but not delicious either. Here’s more about balche in our story about the fermented drink for Roads and Kingdoms.
The balche was ladeled out of the canoe into a hand-made pottery jar (a replica of an important original vessel) then distributed in cups made from coconut shells. Sadly, the gorgeous ceramic jar was dropped and shattered later that night after perhaps one too many balches.
In the afternoon Frans and Trudi’s coffins were taken out of the Nahá community center, where they’d been displayed on top of a small shrine, and carried to our encampment accompanied by a procession of villagers. At the encampment, the coffins were displayed on top of the picnic tables in the dining area. Small bags of soil from Frans and Trudi’s birthplaces (Denmark and Switzerland, respectively) were added to the coffins.
As people shared stories and memories from the lives and times of Frans and Trudi, emotions started coming to the surface and by the time we put the coffins into the back of a small white pickup truck and convoyed to the cemetery tears were on the way.
With storm clouds building, a group of men lowered Frans and Trudi into a joint grave near that of Chan K’in Viejo then placed their massive concrete headstone and grave marker on top.
Unlike at the God House, many villagers showed up at the cemetery including two ancient sisters dressed in gorgeous traditional dresses, each with a tiny, delicate bird wing adorning her long braids.
The Lacandon believe that now that Frans, Trudi and Chan K’in Viejo have been reunited these three old friends can “continue their conversations” even in death. After witnessing some of the most solemn ceremonies of a threatened culture as they honored two of their most fervent defenders, we tend to agree.
Check out our video, below, and make up your own mind.
Read more about travel in Mexico