Friday, April 29, 2011

and to dust

(Written March 27th)

If you live in a town smaller than most US high schools, everything -- and I mean everything -- becomes a big deal. Rubbernecker syndrome runs rampant. Maintaining any sort of privacy in a community where everyone is related three different ways and knows every person in a 20+ kilometer radius by name, face, and latest rumor is little more than a pleasant fantasy. Pueblo pequeño, incendio grande, so the saying goes, and whether it’s a scandal or a stranger walking through town, it helps to accept that the fishbowl isn’t ever going to go away, as much as it might make life easier if your neighbors weren’t discussing how often you do your laundry or where you go when you leave your house.

But there are ways in which such a tight-knit community shines. This week I had yet another meeting interrupted and indefinitely postponed by a funeral, which made me angry, and then pensive.

Funerals here start, for all intents and purposes, the moment someone passes away. Family, friends, and neighbors come from wherever they are in whatever transportation they can find as soon as the coconut grapevine kicks into overdrive with the news. The body is laid out in humble state, wrapped in white. The house (or wherever the vigil -- the vela -- is held; we’ve had one in the health center before) is strewn with flowers. At least sixty women are crammed into the tiny, smoky kitchen making coffee and washing cups; more bring thermoses or food to pass around, their voices hushed. Candles are lit; men drag out ladders and argue about how to string more bare light bulbs outside. Someone finds the key to the town office and sets up an open tent with plastic chairs underneath, so that people can sit outside to sip their coffee after they pay their respects. The Catholic pastor and the evangelical preacher both come to lead prayers and hymns over the body. People hold hands. They hug. They talk, or they sit in silence. Kids run around, somehow always underfoot.

Eventually most people return to their own homes, their beds, but the vigil is all night: always, someone accompanies the body, sits with the dear one so that they will not be alone in death.

The following afternoon -- after picking more flowers to festoon the simple coffin and the truck which will carry it, after digging the hole in the cemetery next to relatives already passed on --there is Mass, or a simple celebration with music and prayer in the church if no priest can make the journey out. Many people will attend; more still will arrive to sit and wait patiently in the shade, buying soda and homemade popsicles and complaining about the heat while the ragged hymns rise up on the parched air. The final words said, everyone moves slowly outside, chatting and laughing while the driver of the truck is found, while the nearest family members gather to follow behind as it moves slowly up the road. Everyone else falls in after, strung out along the short distance, ambling in a boisterous parade: accompanying the body once again, to the grave itself.

More prayer follows -- and more flashes from cell phones and cameras alike -- and it is only after the first dirt is thrown into the grave that the crowd turns and makes its way back to town, leaving a few men to finish the work and plant a simple wooden cross over the grave, perhaps painted light green or a violently neon shade of pink, a name and date painstakingly handwritten in large, wobbly letters on its face. Even then the remembrance is not yet over; nine days after the burial comes the novena, a celebration of life and death and the life after. Family members walk out to the cemetery often, to visit and lay flowers, to make sure the cross has not gone crooked and the grave is swept clean of debris.

So yes, to tell the truth, I was peeved when a meeting we had been planning for a month fell through after an unexpected death -- an older man from an outlying community, by all accounts beloved (perhaps too well-loved by the ladies, if one listens to the gossip), someone I had never met. But I think, if there is a good way to leave this world, this might be one of the best: surrounded by family, by friendly hearts and wagging tongues, conducted and accompanied toward whatever might lie beyond; that final lonely journey made, perhaps, not quite so lonely after all.