It must have been nearly three decades ago when I had to gather dirt from a cemetery for the first time; it was nerve wrecking to do so because I am not really fond of cemeteries. Besides, I felt like the whole planet was watching every single step I took on that morning. Little I knew back then that I would have to repeat this operation many times in my life. Well, it does get easier when you know what you are doing and why and not just following someone else’s brief instructions and getting it done, because it has to get done.
Let us begin with the ethics of cemetery-dirt gathering. Do it with a purpose, do it respectfully and without enslaving spirits. Let me address point by point these two guiding principles.
There are some practitioners of magic that simply go about from cemetery to cemetery collecting dirt from famous graves just to have them in their arsenal in case the needs arises to use them.
Here is what I think of that practice. Would you fill up your pantry with food that will expire and ingest it no matter what a decade later? I happen to think that when you operate with a purpose, an immediate purpose, the dirt you gather has more power and it will yield more effective results. If you do not believe me, then test it out yourself. Gather dirt, let it sit on a shelf and then, when the need arises, say 5 years later, use that dirt and see if you can solve the situation at hand just as effectively. There is a process of conscious gathering of strength and momentum as you prepare a magical working which should not be interrupted; it is like putting together a cake. Would you mix the batter and let it sit on a shelf a day or two before putting it in the oven? It could very well be that being a dirt collector is just your thing, ok then so be it, but the purpose and energy behind each collection must then be carefully catalogued and noted so when you finally decide to use that dirt you can recall that particular state of mind and get again into that groove to impart the working with the appropriate energy.
There are procedures on how to gather cemetery dirt and they vary greatly according to what your practices are. If you are Hoodooist, there are ways to gather dirt and pay for it. If you are an Olosha, there are ways to respect, and if you are—to cite a third practice—a Palero, then you should know I won’t get into any details because as a Palera I respect my pacts and I don’t go about discussing what I learned from my Tatas with non-initiates.
So let’s address two common practices that make no bones about how to gather cemetery dirt: Santeria and Hoodoo.
The Hoodoo Perspective
From the Hoodoo perspective, to gather dirt you must make a payment for services rendered. You are in a way providing legal employment to a selected dead person. It is useful to be able to do some quick divination on site to determine if the spirit is the appropriate for your working, the divination tools would vary from practitioner to practitioner. Some do not use divination at all. But in general Hoodooist take with them some whiskey, cigar, flowers and/or some coins and use then to pay the dead to carry out a service.
The offerings are usually placed at the gravesite and some like to leave some coins at the entrance of the cemetery as they enter or leave.
There are those who gather dirt from the area where the head would be buried, the feet, the hands or the heart depending on the purpose of the working. Selecting a particular spirit to carry on your working also depends on the aim of your working. Some folks prefer soldiers because they are bound to be obedient, some may choose a prostitute for her trade or because it is relatively easy to buy favors from her, some may chose an innocent (child) to carry on their bidding as they operate with pure intentions—but don’t discount the likelihood of having said innocent become distracted or mischievous. In any case, a bargain needs to be agreed upon and payment must be rendered.
Hoodooist in general can be dirt collectors and esteem dirt from famous people or people of power because they can use that dirt in sympathetic workings or to obtain some of the things/powers that person had in life.
There is much more to be said about gathering dirt a-la-Hoodoo, but those are the basics. The idea here is that the dead is being paid to carry out a task, not that you are going to the cemetery to buy a soul and take it with you or to enslave a spirit with no payment. Those indeed are the realms of the necromancers and not the aim of this essay.
The Santeria Perspective
When digging out cemetery dirt, Santeros overall are a bit more ceremonious in their process, at lease I am. I like to research ahead of time who is buried in that cemetery so I know exactly the year of birth and death and if possible the reasons of death. In other words the more I know, the better my bargain and agreement with that particular spirit to carry on my bidding. Granted, Santeros do not like to talk about using dirt from a cemetery but it is used and in many instances workings are also buried at cemeteries or discarded there.
Entering the cemetery requires ritual; I like to be dressed respectfully. No shorts and shirts showing off bosom. Long skirt, head covering and discrete attire is a must for me. I also like to be protected against the spirits that like to wonder cemeteries and are looking to catch a ride back home with you to create all sorts of havoc and get attention. Placing a leaf of Siempre Viva on your belly button, along with a bit of cascarilla and a piece of cotton is a common practice for many. Some like to wear a belt made with nice colors of ribbon or a red sash around their waist. It all depends on personal preferences and on instructions from spirit guides that may work with a particular Olosha. Upon entering the cemetery 9 pennies are deposited at the gate in payment to Oya, Queen of the Dead and owner of cemeteries.
Offerings used by Oloshas may include but not be limited to: Rum, cigars, flowers, candles, coins and coffee. Normally a set of coconuts can be used to determine the agreement with a spirit to carry on a mission and to gather the necessary dirt for the working. The amount of gifts depends on the Olosha, but the basics are rum, cigars and candles. Coins are always given to Oya, as you can see from paying at the entrance, and again at the gravesite for the spirit if the pact you enter includes coins in exchange of services.
I hope this helps to give you some perspective on the interesting practice of dirt-gathering and opens the conversation to see what has worked or not for those who read the article and like to share their experiences.
Oní Yeyamá Achagbá