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Santa Fe author Ana Pacheco pens book on NM death rituals

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Author and historian Ana Pacheco stands near the sculpture of Dennis O’Leary, who created his own tombstone, in the SF National Cemetery. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

If you ever take the ride-hailing services Lyft or Uber in Santa Fe, count yourself lucky if Ana Pacheco is your driver.

The former city historian gives two-hour tours that cost $200. But if Pacheco’s your Lyft driver, you can get a mini history of Santa Fe for the cost of your ride.

Pacheco’s family arrived in Santa Fe in 1692 and it seems she knows everything that has happened in the City Different since then, even if she’s only been on the planet for 63 years.

An autodidact, Pacheco may be familiar to many Santa Feans as the founding publisher and editor of La Herencia magazine, and the author of the former Santa Fe New Mexican column, “A Wonderful Life.”

The author of several books about New Mexico history, Pacheco’s latest effort is “New Mexico Death Rituals,” published in late-2019 by The History Press of Charleston, South Carolina.

“Do you know the expression ‘saved by the bell?’ ” Pacheco asked her audience during a recent presentation at Op.Cit. Books in DeVargas Center.

Nearly everyone in the group nodded, and the author continued, “But do you know where the expression comes from?”

No one in the audience seemed to know, but Pacheco was happy to provide the answer. Prior to the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 that allowed heartbeats to be easily detected, she said, a bell would be attached to a toe of someone who had died.

Usually a loved one would sit with the deceased the night after they died. If the bell rang in the middle of the night, the person would not be buried and was thus “saved by the bell.”

So what seemed like a sentimental ritual of accompanying the dead on their journey into the next world by sitting with their corpse actually had a practical purpose, Pacheco noted.

During her talk at Op.Cit., Pacheco recounted the story of a Santa Fe trader whose wife died while he was out of town. When he returned home and learned the bad news, he was heartbroken. He asked that his late wife be disinterred so that he could see her one last time. “When they opened the coffin, there were scratch marks on the inside and the woman had torn out her hair,” she said. “People were sometimes buried alive.”

In an interview, Pacheco noted that she has long been fascinated with death, but that her interest in the subject was sparked when she started working part-time selling prepaid burial insurance at one of Santa Fe’s funeral homes.

“My brief stint in the industry was with a family-run funeral home, so I was able to experience all aspects of the business. I accompanied the workers on trips to homes and hospitals to pick up the remains of people who had died,” she wrote in her book. “During the 4½ months that I worked there, I never found the job to be gruesome or frightening. If anything, I found solace in witnessing the universal passage from life to death.”

Ana Pacheco’s interest in death was sparked by a stint selling prepaid burial insurance at one of Santa Fe’s funeral homes. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

While the journey from life is inevitable and universal, some who make the trip try to distinguish themselves on the way out.

One of Pacheco’s favorite stories is about Pvt. Dennis O’Leary, who is buried in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. O’Leary, who was stationed at Fort Wingate, created his own tombstone before killing himself on April 1, 1901.

The private’s memorial to himself is the most distinctive grave among the 65,000 in the National Cemetery, Pacheco said, because, after World War I, the government moved to standardize the tombstones of veterans.

Prior to the advent of cemeteries, it was common for ordinary people to be buried under churches in New Mexico, Pacheco said. But later on, that honor was typically reserved for clergyman and dignitaries. An exception, she noted, is Maria Gertrudis “Tules” Barceló, commonly known as “La Tules,” a brothel owner and gambler who is buried under the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

Although the Day of the Dead is becoming more popular in New Mexico with the arrival of Mexican immigrants, Pacheco noted in her book and during her talk that the Nov. 1-2 celebration was not traditionally part of New Mexican culture.

Despite her deep roots in New Mexico, Pacheco did leave the Land of Enchantment from 1976-92, when she lived in New York City and sold ad space in magazines. The middle child of three, she returned home after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Pacheco, who describes herself as a “recovering Catholic,” has attended Buddhist retreats and said she believes acknowledging the inevitability of death can help foster happiness.

“There’s even an app called WeCroak based on the Bhutanese saying that, to be happy, one has to contemplate death five times a day,” she said.

As she drives around town transporting passengers as an Uber and Lyft driver, Pachecho said she has noticed more descansos honoring the dead along the roads.

“I don’t think it’s that so many more people are dying on the roads than in the past,” she said. “I think the increase in descansos represents a desire to remember the dead and a willingness to acknowledge that death comes for all of us, no matter who we are.”

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