Religions never lose their ability to surprise. This entire concept of belief is one with which I am intimately familiar but about which I’m completely puzzled. If we’re honest, we don’t know from whence belief comes or why it is so effective in keeping people balanced. (There are fanatics for rationalism just as surely as there are for religious faith.) When I saw R. Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, I figured it would be a good read for October, when Halloween comes so readily to mind. Although I’ve studied religions all my life, I’d never heard of Santa Muerte, “Saint Death.” Probably this is because, as a representative of folk religion, Santa Muerte is not an “official” religious figure. Folk religions are what the faithful actually believe, rather than what the religious officials declare that they will believe. Many a deluded bishop would learn to his chagrin, if he deigned to speak with mere laity, that his platitudes count only in the high court of theological heaven. Saint Death is more like the experience of the rest of us.
Chestnut, a scholar of Mexican religions, discovered Santa Meurte while living in Houston. His book is a narrative introduction to the background and history of the religion, its beliefs and practices, and a consideration of what the skeleton saint offers so many Latinos. Although the news in the northern reaches of America often does not bear it, Santa Meurte has regularly made the headlines in southern climes. As a symbol of death, and therefore potential protection from death, Santa Meurte has gained notoriety by her worship being taken up by drug runners and convicts. Mexico’s regrettably long struggle with poverty and sometimes corrupt governments has led to a society in which death is very familiar. As Chestnut demonstrates, Santa Meurte likely has her roots in the Grim Reaperess of plague-ridden medieval Spain, and she has been a somewhat hidden figure in Mexican Catholicism for at least a century or two. Her first public exposure came in 2001, and since then her association with the criminal element has been repeatedly highlighted in the media.
Santa Meurte, however, is a source of consolation for those who have little in life to anticipate but death. Often, in societies driven by the acquisition of wealth, plutocrats forget that justice comes in the guise of the Reaper. To the believer, Santa Meurte is not evil. She is a natural offshoot of the Catholic veneration of saints in a culture where human aspiration is quickly and unfeelingly snuffed out. Those in positions of power claim the Santa is Satan, but they may be looking in the wrong place for evil. Pointing to the Gospel statements that death will be overcome, they overlook the passages that insist on giving away all that you have will make you ready for the kingdom of heaven. Death, even if trumped at the final trump, will greet us all by and by. Santa Meurte is a very practical saint. Chestnut’s book is a good choice to read when the chilly wind shakes the trees for their particular October rattle of dry, lifeless leaves.