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Flowers, ritual, horse race mark Day of the Dead

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Alexandre Meneghini / AP

Candles illuminate graves freshly decorated by family and friends, marking the Day of the Dead holiday at the cemetery in San Gregorio, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. The holiday honors the dead on Nov. 1, coinciding with All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2.

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans cleaned the bones of dead relatives and decorated their graves with flowers and candy skulls. In Haiti, voodoo practitioners circled an iron cross at a cemetery and poured moonshine to honor their ancestors. Some Guatemalans held a wild race of horses to remember the dead.

Across the Western Hemisphere, people are paying homage to lost relatives in observances that began Thursday on All Saints Day and continued Friday with All Souls Day.

The combined celebration known in many places as the Day of the Dead is a particularly colorful and macabre festival in Mexico that harks back to the Aztecs but has become part of Roman Catholic traditions.

"In the European-Christian notion of death, our loved ones go far away and we're left to survive on our own. But in the Mexican case, in Andean countries, the world of the living and the dead co-exist," said Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist who focuses on religious studies in Mexico.

"The living seek help and protection from the dead, especially on the Day of the Dead," Masferrer said.

And while in the Judeo-Christian traditions, the dead go to either heaven or hell based on their behavior on Earth, many in Mesoamerica and Andean countries believe they work for the Gods and are supported by their family members still on Earth, he said.

"It's none of this playing a harp in a cloud, family members have to feed them and between today and tomorrow they will leave their favorite food at the table and leave the door open so they can walk in," Masferrer said.

Families across Mexico took picnics to cemeteries, decorated graves with marigolds and sprinkled holy water on the tombs of their loved ones.

A "rezador" or prayer man whispered The Lord's Prayer at a cemetery in Pomuch in the southeastern state of Campeche, while Paula Maria Cuc Euan, dusted off the bones of her parents.

"I've been doing this since they died," Cuc Euan said as she returned a femur to a wooden crate lined with padded fabric decorated with hand-knitted flowers. "My mom died 32 years ago, and I have been doing this ever since."

Across the border in Guatemala, jockeys drank alcohol before mounting horses on a ride known as "The Death Race." It is celebrated every year in Huehuetenango state, some 168 miles (270 kilometers) from the capital, and tradition holds that if a rider falls during the race it's a sign that farmers will enjoy an abundant harvest.

Peruvians flocked to cemeteries, from low-lying ones on the coast overlooking the Pacific to graveyards high in the snow-capped Andes.

Thousands crowded Lima's Virgen de Lourdes cemetery, the country's largest, to leave flower offerings and dance to Andean music. Hilarion Ramos, 79, left a bouquet of Incan lilies at the grave of his son who died in 1979 at age 2.

"My little boy left 33 years ago, but I don't forget him. I still have the memory of his little face in my mind," said Ramos, who walked a mile (two kilometers) to take his offering to the cemetery.

Musicians played nearby while Lucila Mamani, 62, and her three brothers danced around the grave of her mother.

"Death is very sad so this allows me to remember with joy (the life) of the deceased. That's how we Andeans are. That's why I hire the musicians to play here," Mamani said.

Food played a big role in Bolivia where many people celebrated the "return" of loved ones with full tables.

Fruit, bread and wine were set on a white tablecloth for Blanca Jimenez's dead family members, who were represented by framed photographs next to lit candles.

"It's a re-encounter with our loved ones," Jimenez said.

The celebration permeates all social circles in Bolivia, including the very top of the government. Officials at the foreign relations department set up a large table with paintings of indigenous heroes and social leaders to "welcome their souls."

In Haiti, hundreds of voodoo, or Vodou, practitioners gathered at cemeteries, then marched in street processions to honor their ancestors in Day of the Dead, or "Fet Gede," ceremonies.

Circling an iron cross at a cemetery on the eastern end of the capital, Port-au-Prince, dozens of young men and women took turns pouring rum, moonshine and other libations. A woman wearing a black bra and a purple headband, the signature colors of the festivities, threaded through the crowd in a seeming trance as others looked on.

"Today is the day we come to celebrate the people who have died, the people we haven't seen in a long time," voodoo priest Jean-Robert Pierre said as he carried a bottle of rum. "We're celebrating our ancestors."

Day of the Dead festivities in Haiti are often used as an excuse to act out against social norms, for the voodoo spirits associated with the event are widely seen as rowdy and impulsive.

At a major cemetery in Port-Au-Prince, men and women dressed in top hats and wore ghostly makeup representing the entity Gede, a well-known voddoo spirit. A sign outside the burial site in Creole read: "Remember that you are dust."

Associated Press writers Franklin Briceno in Lima, Peru; Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia; and Trenton Daniel in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.

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