Struggling to Commemorate in La Paz Cemetery

I’ve been debating writing (and then later, I debated publishing) this post because it is intensely personal.

I decided to go ahead, because even if reading this helps just one person in a similar situation feel less alone or more at peace, then it’s worth it.

One downside of expat life is missing a LOT of important days. Christmas (even though I’m not Christian) and family birthdays are especially nostalgic, but missing out on beloved friends’ weddings, baby births, and other huge life milestones are among the most gut-wrenching and guilt-inducing.

One other day I still struggle with, even all these years later, and which I didn’t realize would be so hard, is the anniversary of my mother’s death.

My mom on her wedding day

my mom, on her wedding day

To be totally honest, not being able to put flowers on her gravestone and visit her burial site inspires feelings of intense guilt. I feel like an eternally bad daughter, and if there is an afterlife, I hope she can somehow know I always think of her, especially on that date.

From a rational perspective, I know my mom would want me out living and loving life (like she did), not spending immense amounts of time and money (she was SO good at saving) to mourn and weep at the location of her coffin. But even that logical knowledge, and remembering her beyond-normal understanding and compassionate nature, doesn’t keep the guilt from knotting my stomach or the tears from welling in my eyes.

Aside from donating to charity in her memory, and trying to be especially kind, I’m always at a loss as to how to properly commemorate her life (and death) from abroad. I don’t want her memory to slip away. I don’t want her to slip away.

My mom

She was the kindest and most loving person I’ve ever met, and I miss her every day. I regret not being able to know her better, not being able to have a relationship and friendship with her as an adult instead of as a spoiled child.

My mom

she’s the one who gave me a love of adventure and travel – in this blurry photo on a summer trip in northern Michigan

This year, I tried something a bit different. Over 4000 miles away from my own mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death, it felt especially fitting to visit the La Paz Cemetery.

La Paz Cemetery Bolivia La Paz Cemetery Bolivia La Paz Cemetery Bolivia

Lavi and I were floating high above Bolivia’s best known city on the teleferico’s red line, when we spotted the cemetery below. While it is mentioned in Lonely Planet (and warned against as a “seedy” location), we decided to risk it, exiting the teleferico and finding our way to the vast entrance.

It was like stepping into an alternate universe, so different from the somewhat chaotic La Paz proper outside the gates.

While just as colorful as the rest of the city, with flowers brightening most nooks and crannies, the atmosphere inside the cemetery was noticeably heavier and somber but not overly sad. The cemetery was quiet, much quieter than the city, but definitely not empty. Parents held the hands of young children, elderly grandparents supported each other, and lone women all walked with calm purpose to the sites of their beloveds, and once arrived stood still with silent presence.

La Paz Cemetery Bolivia

Only one small child cried, hysterically, breaking the otherwise thoughtful but somehow not miserable air of remembrance with a vocal reminder of the intense pain that accompanies a serious loss, a pain that I hold in my heart as well.

The cemetery was structured like a small city in itself, but large enough that anyone unfamiliar could easily get lost. (In fact, we did at one point, and had to ask directions from several people). The cemetery was unlike any I’d ever visited. So vast, it stretched on and on and on and on and on and on. Labeled peatonals (walking streets) made it possible for mourning loved ones to find their friend or relative amongst the towering tombs layered like miniature high rise apartment buildings for the deceased.

La Paz Cemetery Bolivia la-paz-bolivia-march-2016-47La Paz Cemetery Bolivia

Every culture witnesses and commemorates death differently. In Bolivia, each tomb was built with a small window display, stacked in columns and arranged in rows. The tombs are decorated with elaborate flowers and gifts, commemorating the life of the person who died. The tombs of babies were decorated with rattles, stuffed toys, and cartoon characters, much like the room for a living child would be, the only difference being the smaller scale, and that these toys would go untouched forever. Adult graves were adorned with glass coke bottles, old photos of wedding days long past, and reminders of favorite hobbies.

La Paz Cemetery Bolivia

I wondered at the upkeep of each tomb, as most seemed freshly decorated with brand new flowers. Does a family member come every single day to adorn the grave? Or does the cemetery provide some sort of service, to keep subscribed tombs constantly supplied with bright blooms?

La Paz Cemetery Bolivia La Paz Cemetery Bolivia La Paz Cemetery Bolivia

Either way, I couldn’t help but think of my own mother’s place in a graveyard a continent apart, and the flowers that were certain to be fresh today, though they wouldn’t be from me.

If you’ve lost a loved one, how do you commemorate his or her death (and life)?


A short vacation in Thailand turned into a life abroad with a canceled ticket home. Nearly a decade later and after living in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Puebla, and Puerto Vallarta, Steph is on to her next adventure and living back in beautiful, cosmopolitan Mexico City. She is living, traveling, and working (both as an expat therapist and an international health insurance representative) around the world to find the beautiful, inspirational, and interesting while sharing it with you!

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  1. October 26, 2016 / 3:37 pm

    Steph, this is so heartfelt and personal. I’m glad I was there to spend that day with you. Your mom raised such a beautiful daughter, inside and out, and your kindness towards everyone honestly amazes me. She would have been so proud of you. I love you! xoxo

    • October 27, 2016 / 1:43 pm

      I <3 you so much! Thank you for being there, in that wonderfully random day that was so absolutely perfect.

      Love you, and your words mean the world to me!

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