Tag Archives: Mexican traditions for death

El Dia de Los Muertos–Visible Mourning

que halloween ni que

I’ve had it up to here hearing about Mexican Halloween. It isn’t. It isn’t about dressing up, spooky stories, demons, or blood. Not Freddy Kruger, not poltergeists, not witches, warlocks or ghosts. It’s not about haunted houses, trick or treating, carved pumpkins or parades. It isn’t even about death.

It’s about life.

The celebration El Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico is the commemoration of the lives of our dearly departed and the acknowledgment of the loss the living experience with each death. Although I’ve lived in Mexico for almost 10 years, this is only the third year that I have participated in El Dia de Los Muertos events. And why is that? Because up until then, there was no one to visit at the cemetery. Three years ago, my mother-in-law was killed in an accident with a police vehicle. Two years ago, my husband’s grandmother in Cerano died at the age of 89. Now we have family to visit at the cemetery. And we do.

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We clean and place flowers. We sit and remember. We laugh, and we cry. It’s more like Memorial Day in the United States. Or maybe Veteran’s day. So it’s hard for me to understand the touristy aspect that has sprung up in larger areas.

student altar

The altars that are constructed in the town center in Moroleon are typically in honor of recently deceased community members. It’s a community mourning ritual. There are altars for recently deceased students, teachers, bakers, metalworkers, shopkeepers and more. The platforms constructed outside homes in Cerano are even more personal. So what would motivate someone to go to some community of which they are not a member to gawk at this mourning ritual?

A child's crypt. Notice the toy cars and pacifier behind the glass.

A child’s crypt. Notice the toy cars and pacifier behind the glass.

El Dia de Los Angelitos, November 1, is even more personal. Altars constructed in the town center or outside homes are created in memory of children who have died–some recently, some not so recently. It’s a personal homage. It’s not for me to intrude on this public manifestation of grief. After all, it is no more or less than a visible reminder that the dead are gone but not forgotten. Families visit the graves of their “little angels” and leave flowers and toys. Brothers and sisters are made aware that there was another that remains a part of the family although no longer physically present.

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The sugar skulls are personal–you don’t buy a bag. You buy one and have a name written on its forehead. The figurines are personal–the catrinas are frolicking about in death much as the deceased did in life–drinking, dancing, singing, making music, even making love. The offerings left at the grave or incorporated into the alters are personal–favorite sweets, favorite toys, favorite drinks. The home altars are personal. Each one is constructed with the deceased in mind.

ofrenda

Perhaps it is the fact that these personal traditions are done publically that gives the impression that it is something to gape at–like one would at the zoo or a museum. Death and loss are not hidden away here. They are accepted as a part of life, not detached from it. Is this idea such a curiosity in modern times that guided tours are needed?

pan de muerto

The rituals of El Dia de Los Muertos bring comfort to the living. The altar or ofrenda is constructed just so. The days of remembrance are sacred. But times are changing….

The school board waited until the last possible moment to authorize the day free from classes. The official calendar has November 2 listed as a school day, while November 16 is a non-school day for El Buen Fin, in some effort to compete with the US’s Black Friday. What does that teach the children about the value of tradition?

This year at the panteon (cemetery) in Moroleon there was a sign telling visitors to denunciar (report) people stealing from the graves. What do they steal? Flowers? Children’s toys? A bottle of coke? Who would take these things? For what purpose? Has it really come down to a culture that steals from the dead rather than honors their memories?

Some larger towns and cities now provide parades, contests, theatrical presentations, mass-produced foodstuff, and trinkets. Wal-mart even offers a Halloween/Day of the Dead mixed selection for your buying pleasure. This tradition that in 2003 was named as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is now up for sale.

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But for us, the ritual that is El Dia de Los Muertos remains personal. It reminds us that those that have preceded us in death remain part of our present lives. They helped shaped who we are today.  It isn’t a fascination with death.  It isn’t an obsession with death.  It’s an acknowledgment of death and a celebration of life.

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Filed under Carnival posts, Cultural Challenges, Death and all its trappings, Mexican Holidays, Religion

Mass and Burial Mexican style

coffin
Typically, a person dies, his or her body is taken to a family member’s home or the funeral home for the viewing.  Mass is the next morning with burial following.  As my mother-in-law’s body was not released until late afternoon, and the entire family, my father-in-law and his children, were required to report to the Public Ministry Office the following day at 11 and were there until late afternoon again, they felt that they hadn’t had time to properly mourn, so she was returned to the house for a second night mourning after mass.   (See Viewing and Wake)
The altar of El señor de Escapulitas Catholic Church in Moroleón

The altar of El señor de Escapulitas Catholic Church in Moroleón

Mass was scheduled at 9 a.m. in the morning so that the family could be at the 11 a.m. hearing.  The funeral car came to pick up the body and we walked from the house to the church, El Señor del Escapulitas for mass.  The sons and my father-in-law stood with the casket in front of the altar during mass.  The daughters stayed with their families in the first few pews.  My son and I knelt when everyone else knelt, stood when everyone else stood and said amen when everyone else did.  I can’t say that the mass was in any way personalized from what I understood.  Nothing about her life was mentioned, just the solemnized intonations of ritual prayer.  My mother-in-law’s co-workers from the Presidencia came along with a good group of teachers from the school I was working at.

I, unfortunately, experienced another death later in the year when my friend, el maestro (teacher) died.  The mass said over his body was an entirely different affair.  The Padre (priest) spoke about the fullness of his life and quoted beautiful and hopeful passages from the bible.  There were music and singing.  And when his coffin left the church, the masses that had gathered in the Centro gave el maestro (teacher) a standing ovation.  My mother-in-law’s funeral paled in comparison.

So I asked about the differences in the misas (masses) and found out that the church offers levels of services, at different prices.  The basic package was what my mother-in-law was given, very little personalization.  The deluxe package costs more, of course, but has the spectacular effects of el maestro’s (teacher’s) services.

We walked back to the house behind the funeral car after mass. The plan was that my mother-in-law’s body was to spend one night in town and the second night in La Yacata, however, the town children protested due to the fact that there wasn’t running water or electricity in La Yacata.  So her body stayed in town.  Although it seemed to me that my mother-in-law wouldn’t have minded the lack of services anymore, the convenience of the mourners kept us in town. This cause general confusion and attendance was scanty at best the second night, most having believed the body to be already interred or to be in La Yacata.
To top it all off, R arrived the morning of the second day to have me sign papers for the lawsuit from Chuchi.  So there I am, outside in the blazing sun, reading the 3 page paper (because it just wouldn’t do to sign and not know what you are signing) that stated that 1) Chuchi was not president at the time he made the contract and therefore not legally representing La Yacata 2) the pozo perforation is outside the boundaries of what is legally registered as La Yacata  and 3) no water rights were ever purchased that would make a pozo a legal possibility. (See Demanda 1 and Demanda 2).
My husband and I went out and bought 12 rotisserie chickens to feed the family and group of mourners that stayed throughout the day.  We also bought more flowers so that everyone would be able to leave a flower when we took the body for burial.
Tradition requires that the body not be left alone or the soul the deceased might be offended but the second evening, through the pure exhaustion of the family members this was allowed to happen unintentionally.  There also must not be any cleaning up.  The multitude of mourners left their Styrofoam cups and napkins littered about, but we were not to sweep.  All the trash had to be picked up by hand until after the novena, since sweeping would be an insult to the soul, a way of saying that it was unwelcome here.
Having very little rest, the family and mourners drank some coffee for energy before the long walk to the panteón (cemetery) the following morning.  As it is outside of town limits, but within a stone’s throw of La Yacata, often the funeral home arranges for public transport from mass to the cemetery, but as we had gone from the church back to the house the previous day, we were about half the distance already.
Another small band of mourners joined us for the walk from the house to the cemetery that morning.  I didn’t think to bring an umbrella for shade and so ended up with a headache and slight sunburn.  Our walk brought us past the courthouse.  Not one guard was outside, perhaps warned to stay inside, as the sight of a uniform might enrage the mourners.  But from the windows, they could watch us as we passed and take a good long look at what “one of their own” had done.  (See On Life and Liberty)
At the cemetery, the casket was placed in an open pavilion and opened for one last viewing while the crypt was prepared.  At this point, physically and emotionally drained, her daughter P fainted. She was moved to the shade and rubbing alcohol was applied to her face until she came around.
The children were distraught and took turns caressing and kissing her body.  I told my son that we would look, say our goodbyes and he could leave a flower with her body but that he should not touch her skin.  I didn’t want his last memory of his grandmother to be of her cold dead flesh, but of the warm embrace she gave him in the hospital when she said “My niño” (her special endearment for him) before slipping into a coma.   (See Parenting Challenge–When someone dies)
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When the crypt was prepared, the sons carried the casket over the uneven ground, past the plots, to the corner where rows of crypts had been built.  The casket was slid into the middle row #19, about at eye level.  The cemetery workers bricked up and patched the hole while we looked on, again in the now midday sun.  I am surprised we didn’t have more casualties from heat stroke.  The wreaths were stacked against the wall and the flower arrangements placed nearby.  And that was that.  Nothing doing but to go home.
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El Velorio –Viewing and Wake

Today marks a year since my mother-in-law was killed by the police. (See On Life and Liberty) The horror, shock and grief have abated for her family some and as death is a part of life, it is necessary to understand some of  the customs surrounding it.
After my mother-in-law’s body was released from the hospital, she was taken to Yuriria for an autopsy since there were legal charges pending.  Her daughter L went in search of clothing to take to the funeral home, where they would clean and dress the body for viewing once the autopsy was finished.  I thought she would need to head out to La Yacata to pick up some clothing from my mother-in-law’s wardrobe, but I needn’t have worried.  L went to a special tailor to have a green and pink satin dress made and a crown of plastic flowers for her head.  Her body was dressed as the Virgin, possibly Santa Gertrudis, in what I thought was burlesque and even for this area was not common, although when I asked locals, they said they had heard of that being done.
Funeral homes come and set up a tent like this one to shade the mourners.

Funeral homes come and set up a tent like this one to shade the mourners.

The funeral home came to pitch a tent for the mourners outside the house before they brought the coffin.  There are funeral homes and salones de velación (places for the public display of the body) in Moroleón, however the poor still open their home for the viewing and wake, as inconvenient as it may be.
cofin 2
Her coffin arrived in the late afternoon and set up in the area adjoining the kitchen.  Large pillar candles were placed one at each corner and remained lit during the entire viewing. As the viewing was extended an extra day, we had to buy another set of candles.  Mourners brought more candles and flowers.
Squash was cut open and placed underneath the casket along with a dirt cross and rosary.  The squash was there to suck out the “cancer” from the deceased.  The nearest I was able to understand is that the squash removes the bad humors from the body in preparation for the spiritual awakening and that as the squash shrivels, the body is cleansed.
Every once in awhile, the women passed inside to rezar (pray with rosary beads) and I was included in this as a daughter-in-law of the deceased.   Being not only foreign but non-Catholic, I was not expected to lead the prayers and I just stood respectfully in silence.  However, the inclusion was a first and demonstrated an acceptance from the ladies of the family that was not extended to M’s American wife, who stayed outside with the men.
The casket was open but my mother-in-law was kept under glass, or rather plexiglass.  Her 88-year-old parents, Mama Vira and Papa Rique, came from Cerano, as did my father-in-law’s mother, Mama Sofia and her husband Tío Felipe.  Everyone was concerned that the viewing and wake might be too much for them at their advanced ages, but instead, it was her niece, daughter of her sister Lucia, that had difficulties.  Later that night, she was rushed to the hospital after having miscarried.  Doctors said that the fetus was malformed and the body took care of it on its own, however, the everyone nodded and said it was only natural that my mother-in-law’s spirit did not want to go alone and so took one of the family to accompany her.  Pregnant women are discouraged from attending for this reason.
In the evening, mourners arrived to accompany the family in their grief.  Some brought flowers, some tequila, some sugar and coffee or bread, as it is custom for the family to host the mourners, providing a beverage and light repast.
Mourners the first night included representatives of the various political parties, PAN, PRI/Verde, PRD, with their candidates very visibly and ostentatiously positioned.
Flowers sent from the PRD candidate, later elected President of Moroleon

Flowers sent from the PRD candidate, later elected President of Moroleon

(See Politicking) My mother-in-law was PAN and although she wasn’t able to participate in this year’s elections, she was well known for past services and honored with a corona (wreath) from the party members.
flores de pan
Super Prez also came to the viewing with secretary R and his brother and the community’s lawyer R2.  Super Prez sent another corona (wreath) from the colonos de La Yacata.
flores de la yacata
My mother-in-law’s co-workers at the Presidency sent a third corona (wreath).
flores de sus companeros de trabajo
Not to be outdone, her son B bought a corona (wreath) twice as big as any of the others and at the crypt positioned it to eclipse the other wreaths, although as the heaviest it unbalanced and broke the stakes of the other wreaths.  I guess that proves that he loved her best.
flores de su familia
Mourners stayed until the early morning hours.  Family members took turns serving coffee and sweetbread to the women and tequila to the men.  Every two hours or so, there was another session of prayer.  In the early morning hours, there was singing.
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Parenting challenges–when someone dies

 

Welcome to the March 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Tough Conversations

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have spoken up about how they discuss complex topics with their children. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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The majority of México is Catholic and nearly every house has a cross displayed.

We moved from a predominately Protestant but mostly religiously tolerant country to a nearly universally Catholic country when we moved from the United States to México. So the question became how to raise a religious but open-minded child in such a dogmatic and closed culture?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with Mexican Catholicism. After all, there are millions of devout devotees. But I wasn’t raised as a Mexican Catholic, and I did not wish to limit my son’s religious experience just because it’s the religion of the masses.

Although my husband was raised as a Mexican Catholic, our religious differences were not a point of contention between us, until we arrived in México with our 4-year-old child who had not been baptized as an infant. My mother-in-law started in immediately with how it was necessary for our son to be baptized in order to remove the devil’s horns from his head. (I admit to thinking WHATEVER to that idea.) My husband began to agree and make noises about how we should get him baptized. I told him that if he wanted to get our son baptized, although personally not seeing the necessity of that myself, he could go ahead and make the arrangements himself. As he never went to make the arrangements (being male) and my mother-in-law was unwilling to take on the expense (being cheap) this passed and our son remained unbaptized.

Then came the First Communion debate. Having not baptized our son, I did not see the necessity of having him prepared for his First Communion, but since his cousin, the same age was going through the ritual, it came up again. Again, I told my husband if he wanted to do this, he would need to make the arrangements, and again my mother-in-law was not interested enough in the plight of my son’s soul to make the financial sacrifices involved (clothes and a party mostly). Being a non-Catholic, I was automatically barred from involvement, unless of course I went and became Catholic. I wasn’t interested in doing that.

We attended mass on a few occasions, mostly for the experience of it over the last 6 years, but we never really had to confront the issue until last May when my mother-in-law was involved in an accident. Then, all of a sudden, religion became a big deal in our lives. My mother-in-law’s personal saint was El Niño de Atocha, and the family lit candles to that saint in supplication for her life. The saint was moved from her house to ours since my father-in-law was either in jail or at the hospital and couldn’t be there to keep a candle lit, so it became my responsibility. My father-in-law made a vow to walk descalzo (without shoes) to the Virgin of Guadalupe‘s shrine in Soledad if my mother-in-law recovered. My brother-in-law B became downright hostile towards me, the only non-Catholic in the bunch, although I tried to do what I could to help. When my mother-in-law died, she received the last rights and made her confession as any good Catholic would. My father-in-law asked me, not his religious son B if he needed to complete his pilgrimage since she died. I said no, I didn’t think so.

The altar of El señor de Escapulitas Catholic Church in Moroleón

The altar of El señor de Escapulitas Catholic Church in Moroleón

We had the funeral in the El Señor de Escapulitas with all the pomp and circumstance of a Catholic funeral. Then we began the novena(the 9-day prayer session for the soul of the departed to be released from purgatory). And then my son asked me about death.

So we talked about it, he and I. I asked him what he thought might happen when someone dies. He said he wasn’t sure. Being only 10, his death experiences involved mostly pets and livestock. So I explained that most people in México believed the soul lives on for a time in a place called purgatory, which wasn’t heaven or hell and that there would be rituals that were intended to help his grandmother’s soul move from purgatory towards one or the other. We talked about what heaven might be or what hell might be. Then I presented other ideas to him. I talked about the concept of reincarnation, the belief that the essence of a person is transferred to another living being, human or otherwise, in its quest for nirvana. He found that concept fascinating. I talked about that perhaps nothing at all happens at death, that perhaps we just cease to be and our body returns to the earth as part of a natural cycle of life. He was quiet for awhile after our discussion, thinking over things and finding his own way in the darkness that accompanies death.

That night, my son sat down with us for the first of the 9 prayer sessions of the novena. His cousins, who were baptized and confirmed, played outside as we prayed. He said to me after the prayers, “Mom, I don’t think that abuelita is in purgatory, but I prayed to remember her.” He endured the entire 9 days and subsequent mass, the only one of her many grandchildren who did so.

I’m not sure he’s made up his mind about death yet. I’m not sure I have either. We find comfort for our grief as we can. I’ve shared several of my favorite poems and scriptures about death and life with him. He’s listened and commented and gone on with his young life. I know perhaps it would be easier on him if I had made definite statements about what happens when someone dies instead of letting him grope about for his own answers. But finding your own way is the most precious part of living, and I would not deprive him that, even if he is still too young to understand.

 

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon March 12 with all the carnival links.)

  • A Difficult Conversation — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is keeping her mouth shut about a difficult topic.
  • Discussing Sexuality and Objectification With Your Child — At Authentic Parenting, Laura is puzzled at how to discuss sexuality and objectification with her 4-year-old.
  • Tough Conversations — Kadiera at Our Little Acorn knows there are difficult topics to work through with her children in the future, but right now, every conversation is a challenge with a nonverbal child.
  • From blow jobs to boob jobs and lots of sex inbetweenMrs Green talks candidly about boob jobs and blow jobs…
  • When Together Doesn’t Work — Ashley at Domestic Chaos discusses the various conversations her family has had in the early stages of separation.
  • Talking To Children About Death — Luschka at Diary of a First Child is currently dealing with the terminal illness of her mother. In this post she shares how she’s explained it to her toddler, and some of the things she’s learned along the way.
  • Teaching 9-1-1 To Kids — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling talks about the importance of using practical, age-appropriate emergency scenarios as a springboard for 9-1-1 conversations.
  • Preschool Peer PressureLactating Girl struggles to explain to her preschooler why friends sometimes aren’t so friendly.
  • Frank Talk — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis unpacks a few conversations about sexuality that she’s had with her 2-year-old daughter, and her motivation for having so many frank discussions.
  • When simple becomes tough — A natural mum manages oppositional defiance in a toddler at Ursula Ciller’s Blog.
  • How Babies are Born: a conversation with my daughter — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger tries to expand her daughter’s horizons while treading lightly through the waters of pre-K social order.
  • Difficult Questions & Lies: 4 Reasons to Tell The Truth — Ariadne of Positive Parenting Connection shares the potential impact that telling lies instead of taking the time to answer difficult questions can have on the parent-child relationship.
  • Parenting Challenges–when someone dies — Survivor at Surviving Mexico writes about talking to her child about death and the cultural challenges involved in living in a predominantly Catholic nation.
  • Daddy Died — Breaking the news to your children that their father passed away is tough. Erica at ChildOrganics shares her story.
  • Opennesssustainablemum prepares herself for the day when she has to tell her children that a close relative has died.
  • Embracing Individuality — At Living Peacefully with Children, Mandy addressed a difficult question in public with directness and honesty.
  • Making the scary or different okay — Although she tries to listen more than she talks about tough topics, Jessica Claire of Crunchy-Chewy Mama also values discussing them with her children to soften the blow they might cause when they hit closer to home.
  • Talking to My Child About Going Gluten Free — When Dionna at Code Name: Mama concluded that her family would benefit from eliminating gluten from their diet, she came up with a plan to persuade her gluten-loving son to find peace with the change. This is how they turned the transition to a gluten-free lifestyle into an adventure rather than a hardship.
  • Discussing Difficult Topics with Kids: What’s Worked for Me — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares parenting practices that enabled discussions of difficult topics with her (now-adult) children to be positive experiences.
  • Tough Conversations — Get some pointers from Jorje of Momma Jorje on important factors to keep in mind when broaching tough topics with kids.
  • Protect your kids from sneaky people — Lauren at Hobo Mama has cautioned her son against trusting people who’d want to hurt him — and hopes the lessons have sunk in.
  • Mommy, What Does the Bible Say? — Amy at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work works through how to answer a question from her 4-year-old that doesn’t have a simple answer.
  • When All You Want for Them is Love: Adoption, Abandonment, and Honoring the Truth — Melissa at White Noise talks about balancing truth and love when telling her son his adoption story.

 

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Filed under Carnival posts, Death and all its trappings, Parenting Challenges and Cultural Norms