When I was a boy of six, I was confronted with two realities that made a lasting impression on me: priesthood and death. I could not understand why priesthood and death were interrelatedly sacred until I began to experience death through the burials I saw taking place in the small town where I was raised.
I remember one funeral in particular. As I was wandering through the corridor of our casona ("big house"), I heard the sounds of wind instruments playing festive music. Curious about that music, I ran outside to investigate. To my astonishment, the musicians were playing for the burial of a child. The music was cheerful, since the child was believed to be in heaven. Two men carried the small coffin down the streets, followed by relatives and friends. All of them marched with reverence to render the loved one his last honor and to perform the Christian duty of burying the dead.
Distinct, Yet Common
I remember other burials too. Each of them was distinct, yet they shared many common rituals and traditions. I remember men dressed in well-ironed long-sleeved white shirts that matched the attitudes and seriousness of their faces. They marched solemnly with their families behind the coffin, their low voices murmuring as they passed. When the coffin stood in front of the parish church, the bells were rung with such gravity that our inner souls were deeply impressed by their melancholic "din-dan, din-dan," an agonizing sound. We felt as if we also had died along with the dead.
The cortege entered into the church, and the coffin was placed on a table in the sanctuary and covered with a black pall embroidered with white or silver crosses and other ancient symbols. The priest, dressed in his black and silver cloak, took care of the service, reciting the requiem and commending the soul of the departed to God. He also consoled relatives and friends with a homily based on the sacred Scriptures. Candles were lit, prayers prayed, and incense burned. Priest and people joined together to deliver the loved one to the Lord. The service assured all those present that the spirit of the dead had parted to live with his Creator, since "the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecc. 12:7).
Once the procession reached the cemetery, the priest spoke the last prayers. Then relatives and friends lowered the coffin with intense care, closed the grave, put the earth back, and covered the tomb with bunches of roses and flower crowns.
The Importance of Family
I remember one funeral from my childhood in a far more personal way. When I was eleven, one of my younger brothers died, and his coffin was placed in the center of our living room. Many friends and relatives gathered at our home.
We set up chairs both inside and outside to receive the guests who came to comfort us in our grief. We prepared coffee and bread for the vela ("wake"), and at midnight offered a meal to those who were still present. All that night our family and friends sat with us, and our neighbors kept the doors of their homes opened and their lights on. They stayed awake the whole night to give company to my dead brother and to us. It would have been a sin and a discourtesy to leave us alone.
On the days after the funeral we had a novenario ("nine days of prayers") to remember the dead. Everyone who attended was invited to drink some glasses of chicha (a refreshing drink made of boiled corn) and to eat galletas dulces (a kind of sweet crackers).
The first anniversary of the death was also significant. We gathered at the church for a memorial service, and later at home with family and friends. And on the first day of each November, all members of our family visited the tombs of loved ones: parents, grandparents, great grandparents, other relatives and friends. We adorned their tombs with flowers and read portions of our prayer books. We offered homage to them with our presence and with our prayers to our God and Creator.
In our culture the dead had a role to play in the lives of the living.
Undermined by Missionaries
With the arrival of evangelical missionaries late in this century, the customs and traditions changed in a small sector of our population. I experienced and learned that death and the dead did not play a major role in the life of these Christians. They viewed showing concern for the dead and practicing ceremonies in relation to them as symptoms of disbelief in the Bible and Jesus.
To convince us that they were right, they repeated the words of Jesus: "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt. 8:22).
Unfortunately, these missionaries led us to believe that we had to be miles away from the Catholic practices that had meant so much to us for hundreds of years. They taught us to discard much of what had meaning in our tradition. We had to refrain from showing reverence and respect for the dead body—from letting the dead play a role in the lives of the living.