Grieving Rituals Inspired by the Aztecs to Process Loss

Erika Buenaflor is a modern-day curandera who utilizes her vast experience in curanderismo, and knowledge of ancient Mesoamerican shamanism to reveal how this sacred wisdom can help people heal holistically

Grief Aztec rituals

Photo: Codex Magliabecchiano from the Loubat collection that demonstrates the Wailing Rites of the Mexica

Erika Buenaflor is a modern-day curandera who utilizes her vast experience in curanderismo, and knowledge of ancient Mesoamerican shamanism to reveal how this sacred wisdom can help people heal holistically. She’s published several books on curanderismo and is the founder of Realize Your Bliss.

Sometimes we need to cry, wail, shake, and be primal in and with our pain so we can release it in healthy ways, especially when a loved one has passed away. I call these forms of release, primal limpias. During a platica, anytime one of my clients apologizes for crying (yes, these apologies also occur when they are sharing about the death of a loved one) I politely stop and remind them that their tears are part of the limpia. They are in a safe space for this kind of release. I may then circle my popoxcomitl (copalero) even more allowing the copal to fill the space and help my client release the heaviness in a safe ritualized way.

Ritual is a beautiful and incredibly helpful way to process and heal from the grief and pain of the death of a loved one. Initially, thinking about engaging in any kind of ritual to process and really release the pain and grief can be downright frightening, especially if the loss is rather recent. This is often because we know we will likely be feeling these heavy emotions in all of their dimensions in these rituals. But trying to hold in the grief, ignoring it on some level, or refusing healthy ways to process the passing, can create even more serious emotional, mental, spiritual, and even physical problems in the long run. The pain of losing a loved one may always be felt on some level. The pain is often a reflection of our love for them. But, with safe spaces of ritualized grieving, the heaviness of the loss can become lighter.

When I began the research for my book, Veneration Rites of Curanderismo, the number of clients that sought my services to help them process the loss of a loved one or to navigate the expected loss using ancient Mesoamerican rites, increased dramatically and this trend has continued until the present time. It is almost as if our ancestors have conspired with one another, so we could resurrect these ancient Indigenous traditions to help us process the loss of our loved ones in healthier ways and venerate them in loving and expansive ways.

Most of the deaths my clients have dealt with have not been directly related to the Coronavirus but perhaps, on some level, Covid revealed that the manner we generally process death, as a society, is truly dysfunctional. My clients typically come to me with deep levels of pain and sadness, and sometimes even shame for “still” grieving their loved ones. When my clients refer to their disbelief in “still” feeling grief for losing a loved one, I ask them what rituals they engaged in to help them process the grief and honor their loved ones. Sometimes, they will have a small altar for them, but it is very rare that they engaged in any ritual aside from a contemporary burial or cremation memorial to honor them. Often a beautiful ceremony, but not necessarily a space to truly purge in a primal way the grief and pain.

If I feel they need to purge the grief and engage in a primal limpia, I tell them about the wailing rites of my Mexica (aka Aztec) ancestors that were intended to ease the pain of their survivors and were believed to facilitate the departure and subsequent journey of their loved ones into the non-ordinary spirit realms. We discuss ways they can simulate a wailing rite for themselves to help them process and purge the grief.

At the Mexica wailing rites, the immediate family of the deceased would wail, scream, and engage in a somber dance clapping their hands to the beat of the instruments, bowing toward the earth, inclining their bodies, and raising their bodies continuously. The community held space for the family by cleansing them with music and burning copal. The funeral medicine music played was somber with drumming, chanting, and flute playing. Offerings, which included songs and poems of praise, copal, pine, clothes, and other precious items of the deceased were burned in a fire pit. The fire was believed to carry these precious offerings to the deceased to help them in the non-ordinary spirit realms, and also continue to help ease the family’s grief. After hours of purging through crying, wailing, and movement, their community gave offerings of food and clothes to support the grieving family.

If you have lost a loved one and you are still carrying this grief, I encourage you to consider also engaging in a wailing rite and really give yourself permission to not just cry, but to wail, scream, move, and do so with the purpose of releasing the heaviness from your heart in a safe ritual space.

First, ask yourself, do you have any family or friends that would feel comfortable holding space for you in a wailing rite? If you do, please make them aware that they will be tending to the fire, playing instruments such as a drum or rattle, singing, or cleansing you with copal or some other cleansing item, like a smudge bundle. If you do not feel comfortable asking any friends or family members, this is okay, you can still have the wailing rite. For a solo ceremony, consider, having a feather fan or feather that you can use to bring smoke from the copal on a lit charcoal tablet and spread it throughout your body to cleanse yourself throughout the ritual.

Whether you are doing a solo or community supported wailing rite, play recorded or have live music that will make you feel connected to your loved one that passed. Let yourself be cleansed with the smoke of the copal or smudge bundle as you are beginning to wail, scream, and engage in some kind of body movement to help shake the energy from your body. After you have really allowed yourself to purge the grief in a very primal way, close with a fire ceremony.

If you have access to a fire pit, feed the fire copal, dry herbs, tobacco, dry flowers, pinecones, or some other resins. If you do not have access to a fire pit, prepare a white fire limpia.

For the white fire limpia you will need:
– a pot that is only used for your white fire limpias
– a couple handfuls of Epsom salt
– a splash of rubbing alcohol and any other offerings you would make to a fire pit

When the fire is burning, thank the fire for clearing the heaviness from your heart and carry your words as offerings to your loved one. Remember if you still need to wail or cry, please do so, and please ensure that you are being cleansed or are cleansing yourself with the smoke of the copal or smudge bundle. If you have an altar or wherever you may have a picture of your loved one, share a glass of water with them by taking a few sips and offering them the rest of the water to also cleanse and hydrate them.

These sacred ancient Indigenous traditions of venerating those who have passed and our ancestors have helped my clients release the heaviness from their hearts. I share and offer my Aztec ancestors’ wailing rites to you with great love and compassion, and hope that it inspires you, as needed, to create safe ritualized spaces to process and release grief.

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