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Death and the River

ISSUE:  Fall 2007

Puerto Berrío sits on the sultry banks of the Magdalena River. Today the town is a remote outpost in the dense interior of Colombia, but in Puerto Berrío’s golden age, the railroad from Medellín ran to the port landing, and steamboats chugged up and down the river carrying goods back and forth from the Caribbean, Panama, even the United States. Today, only a large hotel built in the 1920s remains as an emblem of those better times.

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Elegant, with tall arcades and a grand patio overlooking the water, the hotel still evokes a certain tropical splendor. The sunsets are still beautiful; the colors fade slowly. But today the building caters to a very different clientele. The hotel has been transformed into an army headquarters; men in camouflage at the entrance are proof of the war Colombia has been mired in for more than forty continuous years. Puerto Berrío’s cemetery, too, is a symbol of this war. Mausoleums filled with small tombs stand just inside the gates, but here, too, among the dead, is a record of a unique gesture of humanity.

Juan Manuel Echavarría narrates “Death and the River”

Also available on YouTube and for the iPod/iPhone.

I visited the cemetery in November of 2006. November is El Mes de las Animas—the Month of the Souls. Every night at midnight the cemetery opens its gates to the people. They proceed from mausoleum to mausoleum, murmuring prayers for the dead, led by El Animero, a man hooded in black, who knocks on the graves, calling the lonely souls to come and mingle with the living. With bells and candles, the Animero is said to literally reanimate the souls.


One especially colorful mausoleum stands apart from the others. The tombs here are marked by the letters NN: nada nombre—no name. Within each, there lies a corpse or part of a corpse that the people of Puerto Berrío have rescued from the Magdalena River. Most are victims of massacres from the drug war, many mutilated, many simply discarded for convenience, for anonymity, to feed the vultures. But in Puerto Berrío and its vicinity, the nameless and decomposing bodies are saved from the waters and buried in the cemetery. Then the people of the town perform a second ritual.


An NN can be escojido—chosen—by a person who agrees to care for the body’s tomb, to pray for its soul, in exchange for favors from the dead. The blessed person enthusiastically adopts the NN, decorates the tomb with flowers and often a marble slate saying “Thank you NN for the favor received.” Some caretakers even name their NN, often granting them their own family name, inscribing the given name on the marble.


One young man, considered the town simpleton, has been uniquely blessed by the dead. He proudly showed me the tomb of his NN, who had given him the winning number for the lottery. The tomb was impeccable, protected by a glass window and locked with a key that he wore around his neck. Inside, I saw that the tombstone was made of expensive marble. He had baptized his NN “Sonia” and given her his family name. Every morning, I was told, he visits the cemetery to clean the tomb, arrange flowers, and fill a glass of water so his NN can drink. They say the soul, rescued from the river’s current, remains thirsty until the Day of Final Judgment.

Man Sitting in Front of Mausoleum


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