Category Archives: Death and all its trappings

Death in Rural Mexico — el Acta de Defunción

When someone dies, the surviving relatives must have the all-important acta de defunción (death certificate). Without it, you won’t be able to change the name on properties, sell vehicles, or access bank accounts. 

You’ll also want to check to see if any places have life insurance policies. For example, Elecktra has an optional insurance policy through Banco Azteca you can get when you buy something on credit. It stipulates that in the event of death of the credit holder, all outstanding transactions are paid in full. But you won’t be able to clear up any of these without the death certificate.

The funeraria can help you obtain some of these documents, although some you’ll need to go in person to retrieve or make the application. 

To get this vitally important document you’ll need to go to the local Registro Civil and present:

  • Certificado de defunción expedido por el médico certificante en original (the original death certificate signed by medical personnel)
  • Identificación oficial vigente con fotografía, de un declarante, que en todo caso será un familiar del difunto, quien deberá comparecer al levantamiento del acta de defunción (Photo ID of the family member who has come to make the request for the death certificate. You may need to provide proof of family relationship with a marriage certificate in case of a spouse or birth certificate if you are the child of the deceased.) 
  • Acta de Nacimiento del finado (Birth certificate of the deceased) 

If the body is of a fetus, you obviously won’t have a birth certificate. Therefore you’ll need to only present the medical examiner’s certificate. Without the death certificate, the baby’s body can not be released for burial.

If the deceased is not Mexican by birth you may be asked to present Carta de naturalización mexicana (Naturalized citizen letter) or proof of permanent residency. Be prepared to also present the original birth certificate of the deceased along with the apostille and the translations done by el perito traductor (official translator). Since there is such a short window of time from death to burial, it’s better to have these documents in order before they are needed in the event of a death.

For bodies that are to be cremated: 

  • Permiso para cremación del Sector Salud, sólo en caso de que el cadáver vaya a ser cremado, original (If the body is to be cremated, you’ll need the cremation permit from the Health Department.)

If the person died under suspicious or criminal circumstances, you must provide:

  • Oficio original del Ministerio Público que autorice la inhumación o cremación del cadáver en caso de muerte violenta u ocurrida en la vía pública. (In the event of a violent death, or death in a public area, you’ll need the authorization for burial from the Public Ministry. This is to ensure that the body is no longer needed for any criminal investigation.)

If the person died in a municipality or state other than where he/she is to be buried you’ll also need: 

  • Permiso de traslado del sector salud y el del municipio que autoriza el traslado del finado, cuando vaya a ser inhumado o cremado en Municipio o Estado distinto de donde ocurrió el deceso, original. (If the deceased is to be buried in a municipality or state that is not the same as where he/she died, then you’ll need a permit to transport the body.)
  • Certificación del acta de defunción levantada por el Registro civil del lugar donde ocurrió la muerte o bien el tanto de interesado del acta de defunción, cuando el finado proceda de otro Municipio o Estado al de donde se va inhumar o cremar, original y copia. (If the person died in another state or municipality, you’ll need the death certificate issued by the corresponding municipality or state.)

If the person died in a country other than Mexico you’ll also need: 

  • Acta de Defunción apostillada o legalizada del país donde ocurrió el deceso, por el traslado del cadáver, con traducción al español si esta en otro idioma, por perito autorizado por Registro Civil o por Cónsul mexicano, original y copia. (The original death certificate from the issuing country with an apostille seal, translated by an authorized translator)
  • Permiso de traslado validado por el consulado mexicano, en su caso, cuando se trate de cadáveres procedentes del extranjero, original y copia. (Original and a copy of the permit to transport the body from the Mexican consulate in the country of death.)

Delays in burial might occur if the deceased is an organ donor. If the body is rapidly deteriorating, it may need to be buried before the 12-hour minimum. If the body is cremated or buried fewer than 12 hours or more than 48 hours after death, you must provide:

  • una autorización del Sector Salud o del Ministerio Público (Authorization from the Health Department or Public Ministry)

There is no cost for el acta de defunción. However, certified copies of the document do have a fee. It’s better to get a copy or two in case something happens to the original. This document can even be requested online in some states. For example, you can go to this site for documents issued by the state of Guanajuato. 

If the deceased is a citizen of another country, you will need to contact the appropriate consulate and report the death. They can help you complete the necessary paperwork. You’ll need to provide proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or passport and the original Mexican death certificate. 

For U.S. citizens, you can find more information here.

For Candadian citizens, you can find more information here.

If you wish to have the body sent back to your home country for burial, the funeraria can help you get the appropriate permits. Some funerarias even provide body transport as part of their service at no additional cost. 

If the deceased worked at least 10 years with a valid social security number in the United States, the family may be entitled to some benefits after his/her death including a lump sum payment of $255 USD. You can find out more information about reporting a death to Social Security here

If you are a permanent or temporary resident in Mexico and you become a widow or widower, you need to report that change in status to immigration. You’ll need to take a letter detailing the change in status, your ID and the death certificate to the immigration office to register the change. 


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Death Costs at the Cemetery in Rural Mexico

Cemetery plots are purchased from la tesorería de la presidencia (town hall treasury department) because cemeteries belong to the municipality. Ground plots run about $18,000 pesos and a slot in the boveda (vault) costs $800 in Moroleon. After six years, the boveda or ground plot can be opened again and a second body can be put in if need be. 

The cemetery in Cerano allows for one person to purchase the ground plot and two additional family members can be stacked on top in their own boveda. Babies and very young children can also be buried in the same area, usually in a small space in front of the main spot. 

For example my husband’s cousin, is the body underground. Mama Vira is next and on top is Papa Rique. The cousin’s infant baby is in a little space in the ground, right in front because he died before his mother, otherwise he could have been buried with her. The plot is full up now and when someone else in the family dies, they will need to purchase a separate plot. 

After five years, you need to pay a yearly fee that varies between $300 and $500 depending on the cemetery. When no one pays your space, you just might be dug up and put on display in el Museo de Las Momias. I’m not joking. If you aren’t put on display, your remains will be condensed or cremated and you’ll be moved to another area to make room for the more recently departed.

If you want to leave your cenizas (ashes) after cremation in the cemetery, some places have a columbario (columbarium) where you can deposit your urn. Otherwise, you can display the urn on your mantel if you like.

A body without the proper paperwork or unclaimed 72 hours after death is buried in la fosa común. Our neighbor, el plomero, narrowly escaped being buried in the pauper’s grave. His birth certificate and identification were stolen during his velorio, probably by the same person that stole his property certificate for his house in La Yacata. His wife had to request a new birth certificate to get the appropriate death papers otherwise he’d be thrown in that large anonymous pit. Since bodies must be buried between 24 and 48 hours after death, there was a bit of rush, but she pulled through and got him the proper identification to be buried.

The funeraria will often get the permit to open the grave/crypt all ready for you. It accompanies the body to the cemetery. However, you’ll have to pay the workmen to close up the grave. When we buried my mother-in-law, my husband and his brother requested permission to seal up the crypt as they were both bricklayers by trade, so that saved a little bit of money.

Sometimes, like in Cerano, you’ll need to pay someone to build the crypt itself. The panteón (cemetery) has workers on staff, however again, you’ll need to pay them. Often, someone close to the family, but not a relative offers to build the boveda. They may accept a token payment or refuse payment. You’ll then just need to pay for materials. 

If you wish to add a lápida (headstone) or some sort of marker, you need permission for that as well. Those permits are given out at the main cemetery office and cost approximately $400 pesos. Plus, you’ll need to have a grave marker made at the marmoleria and they can get pretty pricey. 

The little mausoleum made for the top of our nephew’s grave cost $15,000. On the other hand, you can do it yourself and just pay for materials. The front of my mother-in-law’s crypt was decorated with tile and a name plaque which cost about $1,500. You’ll still need to pay for the permit and make sure the adornment or structure meets the cemetery’s parameters for the plaque, monument, or marker. 

There’s a yearly maintenance fee at most cemeteries. This ensures that the common areas are kept neat and tidy and special efforts are taken during at el Día de Muertos. You are responsible for the upkeep of your own dearly departed, however.

Some cemeteries have special sections reserved for gringos or children. Others allow families to buy up multiple plots and create a family mausoleum. Most, however, are on a first come, first served type of set up. 

The plots on the ground in our local cemetery can not be set aside without the actual presence of a dead body. Otherwise, the wealthier would reserve their spots under the single mesquite tree and leave the rest to fight over what was left. You can, however, pay for a space ahead of time and when your time comes, you’ll get the next available slot either above or below ground.

As you can tell, dying doesn’t come cheap here in rural Mexico. And since it is an eventuality, perhaps you’d do best to set a little money aside so as not to be a burden to your family, unless you are ok with the la fosa común idea.

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The Additional Cost of a Catholic Death in Rural Mexico

More than 83% of Mexicans are Catholic. Catholic mourning customs will add to the expense of the funeral whether you have a casket or an urn as your final resting place. If el difunto (dead person) isn’t Catholic, but the family is, expect a Catholic funeral. 

As the host or hostess, you’ll need to provide refreshment for the attending mourners as the familiar representative of the deceased, both during el velorio and the subsequent novena. The most common food is pan (sweetbread) served with cafe de olla (coffee made in a large pot) or tequila for the male attendees. Usually, mourners that have come to pay their respects bring sugar or styrofoam cups or even alcohol along with their condolences and floral arrangements to help offset the cost. Nonetheless, there is a cost and depending on what you serve and the number of attendees, it could be a nice chunk of cash.

La novena (9-day prayer session) is usually not as well attended. The family often divides up the host responsibilities to provide some sort of nourishment for those that attend. The woman who is in charge of the prayers during the novena, and it is always a woman, must also be taken care of. She may refuse money but a gift of some sort is appropriate.

After el velorio, the body is often taken to church for the misa (mass). Although Pope Francis exhorted the Catholic priests to not charge for the requiem for the dead, it isn’t a free service here in Mexico. The la misa de difuntos for my brother-in-law costs $300 pesos and then whatever was collected when the collection baskets were passed among the funeral attendees. 

If the body will be on display during the mass, it is announced as la misa con cuerpo presente (mass with body present). This is the most common situation. If the person died en el norte (in the United States) then the body may not have arrived yet. Or if there were some unforeseen delays, the body may have already been buried before the mass. 

For instance, if the church was unavailable for the funeral because of a prior booking, then other arrangements may need to be made. The misa for my brother-in-law couldn’t be held in a timely manner because the festivities of Revolution Day were taking place. His misa and burial were able to take place just before the mandatory 48 hours. Mama Vira’s funeral service was moved from the church in front of her house to the church in the center of town for similar reasons, overbooking and all. 

There are different levels of service provided by the church, but I don’t have a price list since it often varies from church to church. My mother-in-law was provided the basic service, which was, well basic. However, when my teacher friend Rene died, being a pillar of the community and all, his many relatives and friends paid for a more lavish funeral service. The entire church was redecorated just for the funeral, like they do for weddings. There was music. The service was about 40 minutes long, praising his virtues. Of course, the service was standing room only in the church and the crowd spilled out and filled la plaza, so there’s no surprise that the extra effort was taken.

The church isn’t done with you or your wallet yet. At the one month anniversary there is the misa del mes (one-month mass) which includes another service with a minimum “voluntary” donation of $300 pesos. 

Then at the one year anniversary there is the el primero luctuoso (first year of mourning) with another yet mass. In our area, it’s common to take out a half-page newspaper spread to announce the time and place of the celebration. After the mass, attendees receive a recuerdo (souvenir) which of course you pay for. Each subsequent year has another mass, el segundo luctuoso, el tercer luctuosos and so on, for perpetuity, or as long as someone is paying for it. 

If you happen to belong to a religion that makes up the other 17% of Mexico, there are still services to pay for, but it might not stretch out for years to come.

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