Celebrating Life and Death in Mexico

January 17, 2018


A friend’s grandfather passed away on the island. His death was not a surprise, given his age, but no less a shock. When it happened, everything stood still. The brevity of life was embraced and the reality of death was swallowed and then the motion began.

Tents were constructed in front of the family home, folding chairs were rented and the entire block of the family home was taped off. The deceased was brought to the home in a simple, unadorned fabric covered plywood coffin and placed under the tent on a strong folding table. Simple flowers draped the casket and additional ones surrounded it, but the display remained elegant, not extravagant. The casket was closed but slightly ajar. The wake or velada commenced. A family member had invited me to the wake and the funeral (48 hours after wake), and I graciously accepted the honorable invitation. After stopping at the island grocery, I arrived in an island style dress, with food and drink, by taxi to the blocked off street. Family members ran (yes, ran) to my aid and I was greeted as any family member or close friend. Everyone else wore black or gray so I immediately stood out as an “outsider” (I had nothing black here), but my presence at the wake was more important to the group than my attire. Chairs were close to, but not around the casket and the sandwich making table was in full gear. There were tears of grief and joy, laughter and hugs and stories…lots of stories. Family friends came and went, always with a gift of food, drink or money (a completely acceptable alternative). The ever changing crowd was moved to surround the casket and feeling a little awkward, I retreated to the back of the group. I was quickly summoned to the front row by my friend, as a sign of full acceptance to the group. Guitars appeared and singing began and the celebration of life had begun. I interpreted to myself, as best I could the healing words, but it did not matter, I understood it all. The overwhelming love this wonderful culture has for family was shining bright. The joyful voices were clear and strong. Mexican culture IS family…period! As darkness drew near, the crowd began to disperse, except for the family members who were responsible for remaining with the body in prayerful vigilance until the funeral.

Two days later, the emotional funeral began in the church of the grandfather (and surprisingly, not Catholic). After the service, the modest casket was placed in a pickup truck and attendees trailed behind the truck for the mile walk to the cemetery. I was invited to walk along on the private journey, but I felt this too much of a delicate time, so I declined. The last 48 hours had been such an experience and one that will not be forgotten. I have since explored the two cemeteries on the island and I am intrigued by the colorful celebration of life and death that this culture embraces. Monuments are colorful and ornately adorned with seemingly no expense spared. Niches that atop most, are filled with stone angels or other memorable trinkets. Artificial flowers adorn most and crosses tower high. The Mexican culture embraces life and they do not fear death.      -E






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