Day of the Skull celebrations see Bolivians venerate the heads of dead strangers

La Paz, Bolivia - Spiritual Bolivians have upset church ministers by taking human skulls of dead strangers from cemeteries to celebrate an annual pagan tradition.

Residents in the country's capital, La Paz, use the human remains for the macabre Day of the Skull celebration, a bizarre mix of Andean pre-Hispanic beliefs and Roman Catholicism.

Those who take part in the morbid ritual even dress the skulls up in military hats, put cigarettes in their mouths and adorn them with flowers as part of the ghoulish display.

The Bolivian church considers the Day of the Skull a pagan cult, but chooses to recognise it as a way of retaining its influence in the indigenous-majority country.

Ancient Andean beliefs holds that people have seven souls, and one stays with the skull, anthropologists say.

Believers think this soul has the power to visit people in their dreams, heal and provide protection - hence the various decorations on the skulls, which act as a sign of gratitude.

Skulls, or 'natitas,' are kept in their homes, where believers give them names and keep them in glass cases or on makeshift altars.

For 'Day of the Skull' celebrations, they dress them up and take them to the chapel at La Paz's main cemetery for Mass.

Homemaker Luisa Perez brought the skull that has accompanied her family for 24 years.

She said: 'To look after my house, to scare away thieves, to protect my family, that is why I venerate her.

The Rev. Jaime Fernandez refused to bless the natitas this year at La Paz cemetery - as has been done in the past - but at the insistence of believers he agreed to say a short prayer so 'their souls can rest'.

'They shouldn't bring them to the church. They shouldn't pull them from their tombs. They should leave them in peace,' Fernandez said, praying over the skulls in Spanish and Aymara.

The belief in natitas is deeply rooted in poor neighbourhoods and among rural migrants, but isn't popular among Bolivia's middle class.

Anthropologist Milton Eyzaguirre said that in the Andean world, death is another dimension of life, and a time spent in contact with spirits is necessary.

The skulls are usually not of family members but of strangers, often recovered from unnamed, abandoned graves or purchased.

Bolivian custom is to remove the human remains after eight years for the families to incinerate. But some remains go unclaimed.