Crossing Cultures: No Tears in Heaven

Grief is an odd thing. It is something all people across the globe have in common, but the actual process of grieving the death of a loved one and letting them go is actually a cultural phenomenon. In the US, we have visitations, memo- rial services and graveside services. In some places in Africa, they express their grief dramatically, with loud wailing for long periods of time. In other parts of the world, someone’s death is received as their final honor, and the grieving show utmost respect and value for the lost. 

How do Peruvians handle this stage in life? I have been able to witness various aspects of this and have discussed it with some friends. They have a strongly Catholic tradition com- bined with some superstitious or folk beliefs. The actual be- haviors vary from family to family, person to person, but that are some overarching norms. 

When someone dies, the process that leads to their burial does not last long, and they are typically buried the next day. Once the body is prepared, it is brought back to the house to be “velado”, which literally means “candled”. This just means that they have a wake. Family is there, friends, and sometimes neighbors. The purpose is to keep the dead person company while they bid farewell to their home. It is not necessarily a mournful occasion for those who attend. Depending on the wealth of the family, the guests might be served no more than beer and sweets, or have a catering team that keeps various foods and drinks readily available. I asked my friend if it was rude to not attend the wake, and she said it was the same either way. However, if you are unable to go to the home, you should go to the funeral in order to show the family you support them. 

The funeral usually proceeds straight from the wake. The pallbearers remove the body from the home and it is trans- ported to the cemetery. Here again, the wealth of the family decides what happens next. At one funeral I attended, the family could afford a plot of ground, grass and all, and the woman was buried in a standard sized coffin in the ground, just as we would do in the States. At another, the family was much poorer and could only afford to rent a slot in a mausoleum, which also meant the casket was smaller and narrow. All cemeteries around here have a chapel and a presiding priest. The wealthy family was able to have a short memorial mass there before the crowd walked back to the gravesite. 

The poor family simply paused in front of the chapel for a moment so that the priest could pray over the body and sprinkle it with holy water before we all turned to walk to the mausoleum. 

As for the burial itself, this is one of the most significant, emotional differences I have observed. All those in attendance stay until the body is completely buried, or closed into the mausoleum. In the case of the wealthier family, they had a tent beside the grave with chairs where the family and closest friends were seated. A priest said a few words, allowed a couple of others to share as well, then led the entire crowd in a chanted prayer to Mary as the grounds workers lowered the casket, removed the framework, shoveled the dirt back into the hole and replaced the sod. For the poorer family, no priest was present, but each of the sons stepped forward and said a few words, as well as an older man in the family (I am unsure of the exact relation). Then the pallbearers carried the casket up a rickety set of scaffolding-type stairs and slid the casket into the assigned space. A cemetery worker came and plastered in a stone slab that had been cut for the open- ing, then painted the name of the dead and some dates on it. Then all the people who had brought flower arrangements carried them forward to be propped up near the opening. 

I find this aspect the hardest to absorb, because the finality of the loss is right in the faces of everyone present. As the pallbearers were sliding the casket into the opening, one of the daughters collapsed. It was just too much for her to absorb. When I heard the dull thud of dirt clods landing on the casket as they were shoveling earth into the grave, and as I noticed the pain on the faces of the family members seated there, front and center, I realized how harsh this tradition is. Those who love the one who has died have to stand and bear witness to the concrete reality that their family member or friend is now completely enclosed in the hold of death. Even though you know there is no going back once they die, this is the part where you really feel the weight of it. Their faces are hidden forever. It was hard for me, even though these losses were not personal. 

This may be why the last phase of their traditional grieving must take place. The family basically closes ranks.They stay home together for about a week and mourn together. This may also be due to the speed with which the body is buried; they need extra time to process what has happened before resuming normal activities. I know less about this time, but at least some families choose to dwell heavily on their pain and loss, continuing in a depressed mode for an extended time. This especially applies to spouses and children of the deceased. They take the emotion of it all very heavily. 

Gradually, they return to normal. No one seems to mind if it is a slow process for them. I had one friend tell me that her family believed that the spirit of her mother had returned to be with them. She recounted stories to explain why they believed this, such as help with car trouble or remembering something that had been forgotten, or feeling peace when they had not before. She said her father was acting again like his wife was with him. They were able to move on once they felt her presence with them. Others believe that you must care for the gravesite of your relative, even leaving food and drink on occasion, so that they will look out for your family and not be offended, choosing instead to do you harm. I’m sure even more variations of folk religions and superstitions exist, but my experience is limited to these types of beliefs. 

It makes me yearn all the more for those around us to seek a right relationship with God and a true understanding of His work in the world. Death is a significant experience to them, and rightly so. However, I know that we can walk through such experiences with the confidence that it is a temporary situation. I hurt for those here who have no such faith and thus feel the pain and loss of death even more deeply. Thank God that He has loosed these chains and will one day cast them off His people entirely.