An acquaintance died yesterday. That means that today everything stopped, as family, friends, and acquaintances dropped everything to attend a gathering to comfort the family, followed by a funeral service, and a long walk to the cemetery (panteon) bearing the remains.
I am always amazed by the differences in cultures. How births are celebrated and deaths mourned are especially unique to each culture and even location within that culture. Some cultures raise the body high in the air and let the natural processes take care of the remains, others place the body on a boat, set it afire and let it drift across a lake or downriver. Here because it is a hot country, the tradition is to bury the body fast, and if you are Catholic mourn for 9 days afterwards.
Visitations are held in the sala, or front room, of the deceased or a family members house. Furniture is moved to make room for the casket, and all pictures, mirrors, etc. are removed. If there is no room inside, perhaps the casket is placed in the yard. People come at all hours of the day and night, from early morn to well past midnight, expecting the deceased’s family to provide food and drinks. Thoughtful guests bring something — a kilo (almost two pounds) of sugar is a common choice — to sweeten the coffee or fruit water the family is serving, or possibly some bread or cookies. Others bring flowers, traditionally only white. Sometimes people who don’t even know the family come for the free meal or “professional mourners” come to cry over the deceased for a fee.
There are no open caskets here, perhaps again due to the climate, the deceased is seen only through a glass window. I find this very eerie, as if the person inside is not really dead at all but like Sleeping Beauty, just waiting for their prince or princess to come and awaken them with a kiss. For the family it is difficult, they want to touch their loved one, hold their hand or stroke their face as they talk to them, but they can’t. Only later at the grave site will the casket be opened and the family allowed to “say their goodbyes,” which, as you might expect, becomes an extremely emotional time with all those pent up feelings finally allowed free expression.
After a funeral service, the casket is put into a hearse, and all the mourners, bearing the white flowers, walk behind, clogging the street for any motorized traffic. Since there is pretty much only one way through town and the cemetery is on the far side, it can be a long, slow, frustrating time for drivers trapped behind.
When my hostess’s son died recently, the funeral process only lasted for about 36 hours. It seemed much longer and we were all exhausted by the time it was over. I cannot even imagine repeating the process day after day for nine days.