Tag Archives: funeral services in Mexico

Mama Sofia

In March, Mama Sofia, my husband’s grandmother, died. She was 97 years old. She was able to recognize and converse right up to the end. She was ill for about a week and stopped eating, insisting she wasn’t hungry anymore.

She had been living in Zamora, Michoacan with her daughter since her husband Tio Felipe died. We didn’t find out that she had passed away until the next day. We gathered the clan and headed out immediately from Moroleon. It was a hot, dusty, uncomfortable 3-hour drive.

When we finally arrived, I was a bit taken back by the house where Mama Sofia had been living. Her house in Cerano was only two rooms, but comfortable. This house was made of cardboard with a corrugated tin roof. I knew that her daughter C. was not so desperately poor that this was the only option available. She had run a successful tortilla business for years. But, when I met her husband, things became a little clearer.

C’s husband received us like a sultan on his bed, hidden in the interior of the house that seemed more like a labyrinth to me. He had the only fan in the house directed at him, never mind the mourners crouched around the rapidly decomposing body of Mama Sofia. His entire contribution to the evening’s events was sipping from his tequila bottle, although to be fair, he did offer everyone a shot in their coffee before retiring.

Things in Michoacan are done a little differently. Beneath the casket, there was a cross made of cal (lime) and two bowls of purple onion in vinegar rather than a dirt cross and sliced squash to draw out the “cancer” (bad humors) from the body. Twenty-four hours after death, there must be a misa (mass) said for the departed soul.

Things in Mexico often take longer than it seems like it should. Therefore, there was a hold-up for the mass scheduling and burial. Instead of taking the body to one of the templos (churches) the priest came to the house. And what a priest!

He was young. I’d say no older than 25 or so. He also was from Cuba and had just been transferred to Zamora. This funeral was his first in the community. Much to my surprise, he transformed from a serious young priest into a scolding fire and brimstone preacher in just minutes. Nothing he said during the course of the evening was in the least bit comforting for the family. He scolded them about not knowing the Lord’s Prayer well enough, about having the body placed in the casket before being blessed, about gossiping in the presence of a dead person, about the lack of confessors, about having no woman to lead the prayers with the rosary, about having a rosary that was blessed by the priest on Viernes Santo (Holy Friday) apparently that’s a no-no, about kids having caps on in the presence of death and on and on.

So since Mama Sofia couldn’t get a mass scheduled at the church at the 24-hour mark, the priest did a full mass right there on the dirt street, in front of the cardboard house that sheltered Mama Sofia’s body. He enlisted an altar boy. C. set up the altar on a folding table and hung a large Christ image from the roof. He enlisted a woman to read some bible passages. He enlisted 2 ladies to pass the collection dishes. And he enlisted me.

Yes, me. Somehow I found myself being blessed by the holy father and transformed through the holy spirit into a Catholic. My son said I had a deer-in-headlights look the entire time. That’s pretty much how I felt. My job was to handle the wafers, dip them into the wine, say “El cuerpo y la sangre de Cristo” and pop them into the open mouths of the recipients. Me. I’m still in shock I think. Somehow, I think this wasn’t quite orthodox.

I managed it though. There were more wafers left at the end, so everybody who took communion, and a few who didn’t (like me) were given a mouthful. Apparently, once the wafers have been blessed it would be a sin to waste them.

The priest had the same idea about the communion wine. After the service, he not only polished off the entire bottle but opened a second one. Then he introduced us to his 9 or 10-year-old son who travels from congregation to congregation with him. Ummm, ok.

While we were sitting around after mass, there was a spectacular bike crash between two of the neighbors behind the boards on buckets pews. While these two guys were arguing over whose fault it was, a man with orange and black pumpkin boxers on and nothing else walked through the drama and back with a container of milk. I swear I didn’t touch the communion wine!

Then, somehow during the prayer session (rezar) the priest handed me the rosary and told me to move forward a bead every time he said Amen. So round and round the rosary went. When I reached the cross thing, I tried to go backward, but I thought that didn’t seem right, so I jumped the cross thing link and continued around. I really think I need to do some more research on funeral protocol just in case I’m pressed into service again.

The burial wasn’t until 12:30 the following day and most of the clan weren’t able to take any more time off from work, so we piled back in the vehicle around 11 pm to head home. We missed the exit ramp off of 15D and added about 40 minutes to our trip. We did arrive finally, to the delight of our hungry animals and collapsed into our beds.

We will miss Mama Sofia. She was an indomitable woman. It was an honor to have known her.

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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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