Traveling Death Doula Series: Peru

Recently, I visited Peru, a country with a rich cultural tapestry woven from its indigenous roots, colonial history, and contemporary influences. I saw this reflected in how its people care for the dying as well as their post-death rituals and practices.

My mom always said there’s no such thing as a geographical cure. You bring yourself with you wherever you go. That’s so true. When I’m wandering, I do the same things around the world that I do when I’m home: take long walks, try to learn something new, and go to bed at night wondering if I’ve finally found the perfect margarita.

Peru was no different.

I learned a lot. And their margaritas are terrific.

Indigenous Death Traditions

Peru’s cultural diversity means strong communities and death rituals that vary significantly from each other. The Amazonian tribes, for example, have unique traditions distinct from those of the Andean highlands.

They also borrow from each other.

Overall, the Quechua and Aymara communities in Peru honor the deceased, comfort the grieving, and ensure the smooth transition of the soul to the afterlife. When a person nears death, loved ones gather to offer support and companionship during their final moments.

Shamans, also known as healers or curanderos, are spiritual leaders. Similar to other indigenous shamans and cultures around the world, death in Peru means shamans use prayers, chants, trance, and rituals.

They conduct cleansing ceremonies to purify the space around the dying person. Shamans use coca leaves, considered sacred, to perform readings or divinations and gain insights into the spiritual realm. Participants chew or brew them into tea. I found the teas mildly energizing with an earthy flavor. When I chewed them, the leaves made my tongue and cheeks a bit numb.

Shamans also use tobacco or ayahuasca to honor the spirits through soul retrieval ceremonies. This helps reunite the fragmented soul and restore harmony.


I love how Peruvian food and drinks offered to the dying person (and mourners) provide comfort and support. This reminds me of my own family culture, in Irish and Jewish communities food plays an important role – way beyond simple sustenance.

My favorite ceremonial drink was also a popular one in restaurants around the country. Chicha, a traditional fermented corn beverage, holds a central place in many Peruvian rituals and ceremonies. It’s not sweet like soda but may be flavored with fruits or herbs. I enjoyed it with a slice of lime.

Chicha honors the deceased and nourishes everyone’s spirit.


Indigenous prayers invoke the spirits of ancestors to guide and protect the souls. They ask for blessings, wisdom, and support from those who have passed on before.

Many indigenous cultures in Peru offer prayers to nature spirits or deities. They seek harmony with the natural world and ask for blessings for the deceased. Prayers of gratitude and respect express appreciation for the abundance of the earth and ask for blessings for the deceased and their loved ones.

As a former Catholic, I’m familiar with the Prayer of Commendation. It’s lovely to hear this humble request for God’s mercy and protection in a completely different language.

Washing and Dressing the Body

After death in Peru, many family or community members wash the body. Similar to a Jewish tahara, loved ones say prayers and believe these rituals ensure that the soul is properly prepared for the journey to the afterlife. It also prepares the body for an honorable or respectful burial.

Burial Customs

While touring Machu Picchu, I learned that during the Inca civilization, which lasted from approximately 1100 to 1500 A.D., they arranged their dead in the familiar fetal position. Wrapped in leather or cloth, or placed in baskets or under huge ceramic jars, this positioning signified a return to Mother Earth.

They decorated their dead with bright colors and buried them with food, clothing, and other items. Some archaeologists believe that the Inca mummified all their dead, not just the elite.

Today, the manner of burial varies among different Quechua and Aymara communities. Some may bury the deceased in the earth, while others may bury them in caves or use above-ground tombs. The burial site is often chosen with care and holds spiritual significance.

Traditional Peru death rituals coexist in urban areas with more modern practices. Some families opt for cremation over traditional burials, while others may choose to hold funeral services in funeral homes or churches.

Despacho Ceremonies

A despacho ceremony is a traditional Andean ritual practiced in Peru and other South American countries. While despacho ceremonies are more commonly associated with celebrations, blessings, and intentions for various life events, including births, weddings, and agricultural endeavors, they can also be adapted for rituals surrounding death and dying.

In that context, the ones I’ve observed, honor the transition of the soul, offer prayers and blessings for the deceased or dying person, and allow for healing and release for mourners.

A Sacred Space

Loved ones begin such a ceremony by creating a ceremonial bundle, or despacho, made from flowers, herbs, grains, candies, or seeds. Participants include prayers for peace, healing, guidance, and the safe transition of the soul.

They prepare an altar with sacred objects, such as candles, incense, and representations of the elements (earth, water, fire, air), to create a focal point for the ceremony.

I watched loved ones offer prayers, chants, and blessings guided by a spiritual leader and death doula. They invoked the assistance of ancestral spirits, deities, or nature beings.

Once the despacho bundle was complete, we watched it activate through the burning of herbs or tobacco. The activated despacho was then released into nature, by burying it in the earth.

The ceremony concluded with closing prayers, gratitude, and offerings of thanks for the blessings received and the support of the spiritual realm. We were encouraged to reflect on our experience and integrate any insights or healing received during the ceremony into our lives.

Continued Remembrance

The memory of the deceased is kept alive through continued remembrance and honoring of their legacy. Peruvian families hold annual rituals or ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary of the death and maintain a connection with ancestors.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, Catholic holidays, observed on November 1st and 2nd respectively, are significant in Peru. Families visit cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones, often leaving offerings of flowers, candles, and food.

A Blend of Death Traditions and Beliefs in Peru

Migration within South America and abroad has also led to the blending of different cultural practices surrounding death in Peru. Their death rituals and practices are deeply rooted in indigenous heritage, intertwined with Catholicism, and evolving in response to modern influences. The diversity of these practices reflects the country’s rich cultural tapestry and the ongoing dynamic between tradition and change.

Contact me anytime for more information and ways to blend your traditions when remembering loved ones or supporting them through a peaceful death.

I’ll share margarita recipes, too.

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