Category Archives: Religion

Descanse en paz — Rest in Peace

Did you know Descanse en Paz uses the imperative form and therefore is a command to the deceased that they not wander about lost in the afterlife but “Rest in Peace”; whereas Descansa en Paz is simply a commentary that the soul of the deceased is at rest, as in the dearly departed “rests in peace”?

The Monday before Revolution Day, my husband’s brother J was found alongside the road unconscious.  Someone who knew who he was contacted his sister T who has the tortilleria in town.  She had their brother B and their dad go and pick J up and take him to the hospital.  Later, he was released into his wife’s care.  She brought him out to La Yacata saying she could not take care of him.  I suppose she panicked thinking that she’d have to care for an invalid husband the rest of his life.  She couldn’t have known that the rest of his life was just a few days.

We didn’t know J was up the road at his dad’s until Wednesday.  I don’t know what the big secret was, but my husband’s family is weird sometimes.  His 70-year-old father was doing the best that he could, but J was rigid and unresponsive.  He was conscious and could open his eyes, but that’s about it.  

On Thursday, his sister T came to see him.  One look and she called the ambulance, which took its own sweet time getting out here.  The police came along, like viejas chismosas, (busybodies) to see if a crime had been committed. There hadn’t been. (We haven’t had any positive experiences with the police).   My husband was out with the goats when the vehicles pulled up so didn’t see them.  I had just gotten out of the shower, so threw on some clothes and hurried out to take command of the machete and animals so my husband could go up the hill.

They loaded J up and took him to the hospital, which refused him.  He was taken to the community clinic where he was reluctantly accepted and allowed to stay overnight.  The doctor explained there was nothing that could be done.  J was suffering from multiple organ failure from chronic alcoholism. The clinic didn’t want him to die on the premises, too much paperwork and bad for their statistics,  so the next morning the ambulance brought him back to La Yacata.

J died early Sunday morning.  Suddenly there was a flurry of activity.  The death certificate needed to be obtained in order for any of the funeral type activities to be completed.  His dad and sister L went to the hospital to see about that while his sister P and I stayed with the body.  The hospital didn’t want to issue a death certificate.  He hadn’t died there after all.  So L knew a doctor who would come and declare J dead and fill out the certificate for the right price.

Meanwhile, the funeral home was contacted and P and I were instructed to dress the body for burial.  J didn’t have any clean clothes.  I dug around my husband’s and son’s wardrobes and found something that I thought J would approve of.  He was always a snappy dresser when he was sober.  However, I didn’t think we should dress the body until the coroner arrived. Furthermore, isn’t that what the funeral home was for?

While we were debating the pros and cons of dressing the body, L called again to say don’t dress the body until the coroner arrived.  Well, good then.  So we waited.  It was nearly noon when the funeral SUV arrived.  They had gotten lost on the way over.  Fortunately, they had come across my son with the goats and he directed them to us.

We asked the funeral people if we should dress the body.  L called and said the coroner wasn’t coming so to go ahead and do it.  Then my husband called and said he was with the coroner and they were on their way.  Then L called and told me to call my husband and tell him not to bring the coroner. Whatever.

The funeral people, having experience with hysterical families, took over and began dressing the body.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t see very well.  J was in an interior room lit only by candles. Remember, there’s no electricity in La Yacata. I hustled down to our house to get our solar lights and sent my son back up with them (he’s faster).  

A few minutes later, the coroner arrived.  He had such a bad case of the DTs that when he checked for J’s pulse, his hand shook so much that my husband thought it was J’s hand shaking even in death. My son and I lit the way for the vital confirmation and it became official, J was dead.  Then we held the lights while the funeral home finished dressing J and placed him in the coffin.

My husband’s brother B showed up with the sabana santa (the holy sheet) that was placed over J in the coffin.  I was wondering about this part–their mother was dressed as a Saint for burial but I didn’t think men wore dresses to be interred, this is Mexico after all. So my doubts were laid to rest with the arrival of the holy sheet.

J, now in his coffin and tucked in his holy sheet, was taken to L’s house where the wake and novena would take place.  I offered our home, as J had always been welcome there, but apparently, L had decided the location several days earlier.

I had to work, so did not accompany the body to its new location.  The funeral home went and set up the tent and chairs for the mourners and the mourning commenced.  Typically, the viewing and wake last all night with friends and family dropping in to pay their last respects and sit with the body.  The immediate family is there throughout the night to receive visitors.  As our presence was deemed unnecessary, my son and I went home to get some sleep.

At about midnight, I was awakened by some banging.  I thought maybe one of the sheep had gotten stuck under the feeding trough because there was some borrega carrying on too.  I wound up my cranky lantern and went out on Joey’s roof to check things out.  Only I couldn’t see anything amiss even though the banging continued.  It suddenly stopped and I went back inside.

The next morning we discovered that the front gate was bent like someone had taken a crowbar to try and force it off of its hinges.  The back door was also damaged like someone had been hitting it to break the lock.  AHH!  That explains the banging.

Fortunately, we have fiberglass instead of glass on the back door window and it wasn’t as easy to break as the would-be intruder had hoped.  I believe they (there had to be at least two with all that banging going on) knew that everyone was at the wake and thus our home would be easy pickings.  They didn’t count on the gringa (me) wimping out on the all-night vigil and being home. Desgraciados!

J was not embalmed and therefore needed to be buried immediately.  L went to the church in town to make arrangements, only funeral mass couldn’t be held during the day because of the Revolution Day parade.  So services were held in the late afternoon.  I don’t know why the mass had to be done at that particular church.  Any one of the smaller churches would have been fine.  It’s not like J was a well-known member of the community like Maestro Rene, whose funeral service overflowed the church and town plaza with mourners.  The cavernous building just emphasized how few mourners there were.

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From the church, the procession moved to the panteon (cemetery).  J’s sister T bought a boveda (crypt) for his remains to be laid.  Interestingly enough, had his mother been dead 6 years instead of 5, he could have been interred in the same boveda (crypt).  As it was, he got his own slot.  

The novena continued for its nine days, but because it was scheduled the same time I worked, I did not attend.  Furthermore, I don’t believe J would have wanted a novena.  When he arrived in Moroleon right before his mother’s death, he was sober and born again.  All the pomp and circumstance of the Mexican Catholic funeral proceedings made him decidedly uncomfortable, but as the only non-Catholic among the siblings, his wishes were overruled. Well, I guess you don’t care much once you’re dead anyway. Carry on.

Then there were the expenses to be divvied up.  T paid for the crypt, the mass, and the holy sheet. She is the oldest after all.  The funeral, including casket, taxi service for the deceased, tent and chair rental, all came to $10,000 pesos.  I assume this was the economy package because it in no way compared to the lavish hooplah my mother-in-law enjoyed upon her death (but of course all of that was paid for by the presidencia (town hall) to avoid a lawsuit.) That expense was covered by the relatives still in the US.  

For our contribution, my husband wanted to tile the front of the crypt and put up a plaque but he needed to get a permit in order to do that.   So we went to the main cemetery in town to ask about that.  He was told that he needed the proof of purchase, which we didn’t have.  So we went to see T and to find out who had that.  Apparently, L had it.  As L would not give the receipt to my husband, we asked T if she would strong-arm L into getting it so that my husband could get a permit to tile the front of the crypt.  Nothing doing.  There was some hysterical screaming.  L was going to adorn the tomb as she saw fit.  Whatever. I suppose J doesn’t much care anymore anyway.

J leaves behind a wife and 3-year-old son.  His father, grandmother Mama Sofia, 4 sisters and 5 brothers survive him along with a number of nephews and nieces.

I have to say that death here is so much more up close and personal than what I’m used to.  There’s a lot of touching of the body and these extensive mourning rituals that still confound me. I’m not sure that it makes the grieving process any easier though.  Maybe the busy-ness of it all is meant to keep the bereaved minds occupied on things other than loss.  Maybe these traditions are a form of self-comfort.  

All I know is that regardless of the goings on, we miss the gentle humble soul that was J and I, for one, believe that he finally descansa en paz (rests in peace).

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An Evolution of El Dia de Los Muertos

It has come to my attention that there is some debate about the proper name of the events that go on in Mexico on November 2.  Apparently there is a section of the population, although I’m unclear whether that population is Mexican or of Mexican descent, that believe the name is Dia de Muertos instead of the longer El Dia de los Muertos.

It is true that language is fluid and constantly evolving and the shortening of a name is a common occurrence.  After all, in the English language, All Hallows’ Evening is now known as Halloween and bears scant resemblance to how it was originally observed.  So it seems El Dia de los Muertos is undergoing a transition as well.

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For example, this year, our town that aspires to be a city, had a whole weekend of “Dia de Muertos” events in addition to the traditional altares en el jardin (alters in the center garden).  It was unprecedented!  There was a parade, just like in the James Bond movie, (well, almost) and a Catrina/Catrine best costume competition and even bikers dressed as skeletons out for an after-dark bike ride.

That’s not to say that El Dia de Los Muertos has never changed before. After the Spanish conquest, the original date for this celebration of life was changed to coincide with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Instead of obsidian disks, glass mirrors are brought to the cemetery now with the hope of catching a glimpse of departed loved ones.  Walmart now makes the pan de muerto (bread of the dead) instead of local bakers which left me without a sample of that sweet bread this year.  Sigh.  “Dia de Muertos” has become trendy and left behind the traditional El Dia de Los Muertos in many areas. Tourists flock to cemeteries to gawk at the tombs of the dead, adorned with love and cempasúchil (marigold) flower petals.

Even with all these new-fangled additions brought in locally, on November 1, known locally as El Dia de Los Angelitos, and on November 2, El Dia de los Muertos, everyone was en familia (with their families) at the panteon (cemetery).  I suppose the Civic fathers knew enough not to directly interfere with these customs and for this reason scheduled the events over the weekend instead of the high holy days.  

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And for us, it was still personal and private.  We visited my husband’s grandparents’ tomb in Cerano in the morning. We visited my husband’s mother’s tomb in the afternoon.  We left flowers and pictures and talked about our memories so that they will not die the third death yet, the death that comes when there is no one left to keep them alive in their hearts.

See Also El Dia de Los Muertos, Tio Felipe, The Day of the Dead)

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Chambelan at the church

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Part of my son’s duty as a chambelan (escort) was to attend the pre-party misa (mass). The church of choice in Moroleon is El Templo del Señor de Esquipulas. The church had been adorned with a few additional touches, like this white flowered lighted tree thingy.

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The ceremony began with the priest anointing everyone with holy water and a march down the aisle to stand before the altar. The Quinceañera had a special seat front and center while the court (chambelanes and damas) had seats to either side of her. Her parents and godparents were also up front.

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I’m not Catholic, and although my husband is, he’s never attended this special Quinceañera mass, so wasn’t much help in explaining things. There was a sermon. The gist of it was that the Quinceañera was now an adult and able to make decisions as an adult, but as a woman of faith, those decisions should be in line with what the holy church dictates. The godparents passed a lit candle to her, representing their obligation of transmitting the flame of faith to the Quinceañera. The Quinceañera read from a red book that I assume is the particular holy book for such events. She promised her devotion and offered her heart to the faith.

Te ofrezco, Se­ñor, mi juventud; guía mis pasos, mis acciones, mis pensamientos. Concédeme la gracia de comprender tu mandamiento nuevo, el mandamiento de amarnos unos a otros. Que tu gracia en mi no resulte vana, te lo pido por Jesucristo, tu Hijo, nuestro Salvador y Redentor. Amén. (I offer you, Lord, my youth; Guide my steps, my actions, my thoughts. Grant me the grace to understand your new commandment, the commandment to love one another. May your grace in me not be in vain, I ask you through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, and Redeemer. Amen)

There was some mention of La Virgin de Guadalupe, and I saw a bouquet of flowers in the Quinceañera’s colors of blue and silver at the foot of her altar.

Madre mía, presenta mi ofrenda y mi vida al Señor. Sé siempre mi modelo de mujer valiente, mi fortaleza y mi guía. Tú tienes el poder de cambiar los corazones; toma pues, mi corazón y hazme digna hija tuya. Amén. (My mother, I present my offering and my life to the Lord. May you always be my model of a brave woman, my strength, and my guide. You have the power to change hearts; Take, then, my heart and make me worthy your daughter. Amen.)

There was some praying, some kneeling, some standing, some bell ringing and some sitting. I wasn’t able to understand it all with the acoustics in the church being what they were.

I did find the promises that the Quinceañera made above and some additional information on the mass procedure. (Misa de  Accion de gracias de Quinceañera, Quinceañera misa guia, Misa para celebrar los 15 años)

Then there was the call to partake communion. At this point, my husband’s latent Catholicism kicked in. He nearly jumped out of his seat with the comment that our son could not partake of the wafer. I just rolled my eyes. Our son certainly was astute enough to know that without being told.

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The Quinceañera and her entourage marched back down the aisle, concluding the services. My husband and I took our leave. We headed to the centro (downtown) for some churros and cacahuates (peanuts) while the picture taking session took place.

About an hour later we headed to the party hall to continue the festivities.

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Las Posadas and Modern Day Marias

Las Posadas in Mexico is a 9-day nightly reenactment of Maria and Jose (Mary and Joseph) searching for lodging on their travels to Bethlehem.


In the song, it’s all very sweet when the housekeeper (he insists his home is not an inn) finally allows Maria to huddle in the stables to give birth and all, but have you ever wondered what type of woman Maria was to even make this trip? What kind of courage did it take for her to leave her friends and family to come with her husband, who wasn’t even sure about marrying her in the first place? (Matthew 1:19 ) Then when she finally arrived in Bethlehem after a long, tiresome trek, she didn’t even have a place to stay. Talk about poor planning on Jose’s part! Can you imagine how it must have pained her to be in active labor and still at the door negotiating for a room as depicted in Las Posadas? Did the housekeeper’s wife convince him to offer them refuge that night? Did she attend Maria as she gave birth? Was Maria surrounded by a community of women or was she alone? Was a midwife summoned? Was it a difficult birth? Were there complications? Did she cry with joy when she first lay eyes on her firstborn? How was her recovery? Did she have problems nursing? Did the baby feed well? Who let those shepherds into the stable? Were they just bringing in their flocks for the night or did they come to gawk? I’m sure she wasn’t really up for visitors right then. Must have been another one of her husband’s bright ideas. (Luke 2: 1-20)

Then, after the visit of the three astronomers (Los Tres Reyes) some months later (not a handful of days like the Three Kings’ Day tradition suggests), Jose dragged her and her young son to Egypt, where they lived as foreigners until King Herod’s death (Matthew 2:1-23). In a land of strangers, who did she turn to when her son was colicky? Who made the poultice to keep the baby’s fever down? Who laughed with Maria as they watched him take his first steps? Who made up her community of women so far from home? Was she able to negotiate a good deal at the market? Did the sellers take advantage of her foreignness or her inability to communicate well in the language? Did she have anyone to listen to her complaints when Jose had one too many at the local gathering house? Did her first Passover celebrated without her family cause her to weep with homesickness?

Well, we can only imagine what Maria’s life might have been like, how she managed, what joys and sorrows she saw, what challenges she overcame. From what little we know about her, she was a woman of faith, chosen among women but firm in her modesty. The Las Posadas song and Mexican culture give her the added title of being the Queen of Heaven among titles but she considered herself no more than a servant. (Luke 1:48) It’s too bad those inspired bible writers left out so much of her story. Men!

I thought that instead of rehashing the holiday traditions unique to Mexico (See Christmas in Mexico) this year, I’d share stories of women, who like Maria, left the land of their birth to live in a foreign land. Perhaps by reading their stories, we might imagine what Maria’s early married life may have been like. I hope you are as inspired by the stories of these modern day Marias as I have been.

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