Press-Republican

December 4, 2007

Mexican funeral customs differ from ours


In light of the recent death of a colleague, the funeral customs of our respective cultures came up as a topic of discussion.

Regarding death, poet Octavio Paz once said, "The Mexican ... frequents it ... caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it ... he confronts it face to face with patience, disdain or irony."

Many of my university students shared the depth of obligation they feel toward family members, one that extends beyond death, to burial -- and then some.

Funeral homes are non-existent in this region of Puebla; one finds funerarías, shops that sell manufactured coffins or build modest wooden ones upon request.

Here, when people die, they are returned to the family home, covered with a white sheet and placed either on the floor or on a table, four lighted candles outlining a rectangular perimeter around them.

For the ensuing 24-to-48-hour period, family and friends maintain a prayer vigil known as a velario, from the Spanish word for candle, vela. Children are not excluded from these events; from a very young age they grow familiar and comfortable with these customs.

Visitors gather in the home of the mourning family; food (often full meals) and drink is served to all who stop to pay their respects. It is customary for visitors to bring a gift of money or food. Many guests stay the night, seated around the deceased, joined in prayer.

After sharing that in the United States it is customary to entrust the deceased to a funeral home for burial preparation, a student replied, "We believe the dead are ours; they belong to us."

When the coffin is delivered to the family's home, the deceased's clothing and belongings are placed inside with the body. That the dead will make use of these items in the afterlife is fitting with the belief that not only do they live on, but that they return annually in spirit, provided their loved ones anticipate their arrival.

We have visited many homes in the region, some very humble, others belonging to those with greater economic means; one fixture common to all is the ever-present altar, maintained with fresh flowers, religious icons, crosses and candles.

Before Nov. 1, All Saints Day, great care is taken to adorn the altars in a manner keeping with Muertos, Day of the Dead, which is observed Nov. 2. This day is dedicated to the souls of all departed.

The fragrance of items placed on the altar is believed to guide the spirits home: brewed coffee; atole, a sweet, cinnamon, cornmeal or rice-based beverage served hot; marigolds; and incense. Seasonal fruit and produce, such as jicamas, sweet potatoes, un-husked corn, and squash, are strung above the altar in garland-like fashion, along with papel picado, decorative cut squares of colored tissue paper.

Alcoholic beverages are included in the offering, as well as tobacco, candy and soda. Tamales, mole, corn tortillas and bread known as pan de muertos, bread of the dead, baked only at this time of year, round out the enticements.

Anything reminiscent of a pastime enjoyed by the departed, a deck of playing cards, chess set or knitting supplies, for example, is also placed on the altar. Outside the home, marigold petals are sprinkled to create an eye-catching and fragrant trail leading to the doorway; on the floor in front of the altar, more petals are used to form the shape of a cross.

Families prepare the town cemetery for the traditional candlelight vigil, held the eve of Nov. 2. Headstones and graves, which are above-ground cement structures, are repainted in bright, welcoming colors. Fresh flowers and new wooden crosses, engraved with prayers, are also put in place.

On this evening, families throughout Mexico gather to eat, play music, sing and share stories from the past. The dead are never forgotten; memories lovingly preserved are passed on. My students tell me that this is why they know so much about their ancestors.

In Mexico, a rich oral history tradition brings the departed back to life, ensuring that future generations know the personalities, interests and essence of those who passed before them.