Sickness & Death
Two weeks ago I went to the community of Río de los Bueyes for their annual Celebration of the Martyrs where Balmore was going to do a Celebration of the Word. Before the celebration started we went to see an older woman, named Jesús, and her family that live not far from where the celebration was being held. I’d never met her before but the Pastoral Team and Kathy know her well.
She was very sick when we went to see her; almost all skin and bones. Since she wasn’t eating much she had a nutrient supplement hanging up in what appeared to be an IV bag. It was a strange sight for the cantons. I asked Kathy about it and she said that a health promoter might be the one who helps out and administers the IV. We stayed a short while talking to her family. Jesús only stayed to talk for 20 minutes before she tired and went to her room to lay down.
Yesterday the Pastoral House got a call that Jesús was asking for the Pastoral Team. So Blanca, Cecilia, and Kathy drove to Río de los Bueyes to see her. They only stayed 30 minutes because Jesús was weary and very sick. Kathy said she wasn’t eating or drinking and she was coughing up blood. Her stomach was bloated. We all knew she was close to death.
Last night they got a call that Jesús had died. The burial was to be tomorrow. Normally the Pastoral Team goes to someone’s house right after there has been a death to provide moral support, but because it was late and a storm was coming they decided to wait until tomorrow. Sometime around 11:00pm the family stopped by to pick up some money from the Pastoral House. The Pastoral Team often helps families with funeral expenses.
At this point let me explain a little bit about what happens to a body after death here in El Salvador. When someone dies here in the cantons the body usually remains at the house. They are not taken to the morgue or a funeral home. There isn’t embalming done the way it’s done in the US. In the US you usually have embalming chemicals for the blood vessels and the body cavity itself. Hypodermic and surface embalming can be done if needed. The ideas behind embalming in the US are sanitation, presentation, and preservation.
Here in El Salvador in the cantons if the family has enough money they can pay a health promoter or someone else to come and give an injection of formaldehyde into the body in order to preserve the body. The chemicals for an injection can be bought at a pharmacy. This is done usually for preservation of the body. Even though people here are typically buried soon after death it is a hot country and the body is normally kept in the home until burial. However, many people in the cantons cannot afford this injection so there is no preservation done.
Someone from the family goes to purchase the casket for their loved one. Like in the US, there are special stores, called funererias, where you can purchase caskets. The casket can be delivered to the home or the family can take it there themselves. These places serve people at all hours. I asked Cecilia about it and she told me that if it’s the middle of the night (like with Jesús) you basically knock on the door and then go in to purchase the casket.
Unlike in the US, the families in the cantons are the ones that typically prepare the body for burial. Some families have more resources than others but most of the time not much is done to the body. The family will dress the person and sometimes wash the body beforehand. A towel may be tied around the face to help keep the mouth closed. Other than that not much else is done to the body, especially if the family is from the cantons and doesn’t have a lot of money.
One thing is for sure: the body isn’t as “pretty” after death as it is in the US. In the US, several different things are often done to the body. Moisturizing cream can be added to the skin and lips so they don’t dry out. Makeup is often added to the person. A heavy makeup is used to cover bruises, cuts, or other things. Makeup is also used to make the person still look as if blood is flowing through their veins. A person’s hair may be styled, fingernails painted, or their face shaved. They are usually dressed in business attire such as a coat and tie or suit for men and a dress or pantsuit for women.
Today was to be the burial (entierro) of Jesús. We piled into the pickup and headed down to Río de los Bueyes. It’s about a 55 minute drive there and you can feel it getting hotter as you drive down the mountain. We were a little late but no one had left the house yet because they were all waiting for a big truck to carry people to the cemetery. We stood around for a while at the house and talked to a few people. When the truck to haul the people still had not arrived 15 minutes later they decided to start the procession.
Family members helped lift the casket into the back of a pickup truck. Five people got into the back with the casket while Jesús’ daughter and a grandchild got into the cab. There was no tailgate so a rope was tied in its place to prevent the casket from sliding out during the drive. A piece of cardboard was stuck between the casket and the rope to ensure the casket wouldn’t be scratched. Then the truck started driving away at a slow pace.
I was in the back of the Pastoral Team’s truck along with 21 other people. I didn’t know we could fit that many people in the back of the truck. There were also 4 people in the cab of the truck for a total of 26 people. As we slowly drove to the cemetery more people joined the procession. There were at least 4 more pickup trucks carrying people as well as 2 giant trucks full of people. As we drove along more people were waiting by the side of the road to be picked up to go to the cemetery.
It was a long procession that lasted over an hour, and it was a very hot, dusty ride. Not a long distance, but we moved slowly. It must have been in the mid-90s down in the valley and that coupled with 21 other people in the hot sun makes for a long ride. I was drenched in sweat and not terribly comfortable. I had no idea where the cemetery was or how far away it was but I didn’t want to ask for fear of sounding rude and impatient. I later learned that Kathy was very tired and was trying not to nod off at the wheel. It’s not exactly cool inside the truck either.
This is how people get to the cemetery in El Salvador, even when the person has money. There’s either a long procession by car with some people crowded into a pickup truck or other large truck or the casket is carried in a pickup while people walk behind it to the cemetery. Many times the people who are walking behind the truck with the casket sing songs along the way. I’ve seen many processions but had never been a part of one.
Driving through Casa de Zinc
en route to Rio de los Bueyes
Looking back at the mountains
The casket being carried in a pickup
A giant truckload of people going to the cemetery
Driving slowly in a procession
I have never been so happy to see a cemetery and I remember thinking that was a bit peculiar. We drove up to the entrance and Kathy dropped us all off. Everyone started to pile out of the trucks and make their way over to the casket. It was placed under a concrete shelter that had a platform in the middle especially for caskets. Family was around the casket greeting friends and family. The window to the casket was open so people could take one last look at Jesús if they wanted. By the time everyone had arrived there were more than 250 people at the cemetery. I noticed that there were people walking around selling ice cream and plantains chips. Kathy said that was typical of funerals and burials here.
Soon the casket was carried down a steep hill to the gravesite below. The Pastoral Team ladies were asked to sing following the casket and during the burial. It was a surprise, but sure enough, someone had a music book and the ladies found some songs to sing. We all followed at the casket down the hill to where Jesús was to be buried. We weren’t really close to the casket and I took the opportunity to ask some questions about burial.
I’m not sure about city burial, but when the cemeteries are in the cantons the burial itself is much different than in the US. The family picks the spot where they want their loved one to be buried. There aren’t any restrictions about where the person can and can’t be buried. Sometime before the burial family and friends go to the cemetery to dig the hole using shovels they brought from home. There isn’t necessarily a caretaker like in the States who helps out and regulates burials.
Once the casket has arrived the family and friends use rope they’ve brought along with them and put it around the casket to lower into the hole. There’s no vault that the casket goes into before it’s lowered down. When the casket is lowered the rope is pulled out and they begin shoveling dirt back into the hole. Everyone else is usually present throughout the process of the burial. The grave is marked, usually with a temporary marker, until the family can return with a proper headstone, cross, or other permanent marker.
As I was asking questions some men started to put rope around Jesús’ casket and lower it into the hole. There was just one problem: the casket didn’t fit. I was surprised but everyone else seemed to take it in stride. They got out the shovels and widened the hole. The ladies kept singing and everyone else stayed put. Finally, the casket was able to be completely lowered into the hole.
After this people started praying. We wondered if they were going to do the whole rosary but they didn’t. As they were praying the men filled up the hole. You could hear the sound of the dirt hitting the casket. That’s not something you usually hear at a funeral because many people in the States don’t stay while the grave is being filled. Another sound being made during all this was the horns that the guys selling ice cream were carrying. Now, I understand this is a different culture but honking a horn while someone’s grave is being filled seems extremely rude and inappropriate to me. I wanted to snatch the guy’s horn away but managed to refrain myself.
When the grave was filled it was marked with a wooden cross. The family will return when they buy a formal headstone. We stayed around a little while longer and then headed back up the hill to the truck. There wasn’t any formal service at the gravesite other than the praying and singing. Cecilia told me that when someone dies here who is Catholic there’s always a mass. It’s usually before the burial. The mass for Jesús was held this morning but we weren’t able to make it. When someone dies who is Evangelical, there is also a service of some kind.
We've reached the cemetery
The place where the coffin is kept for a short while
Selling food at the funeral
Walking down to her gravesite
It was a steep hill
Making our way there
Gathered around the gravesite
We watched as they lowered the casket down with ropes
Leaving the cemetery
Remembering the Deceased
Following the burial, for the next 9 days, the family and friends get together to remember their loved one if the family is Catholic. If the family is from the country (the cantons) then a rosary is said in someone’s house. Usually it’s in the family’s house of the person who died. If the family is from the city and has money, then a mass is held each day during the 9 days. At the end of the 9 days, regardless of where the family is from, they serve tamales and coffee for everyone. That is the tradition here in El Salvador.
Blanca told me that if someone is killed in the street or somewhere other than the home then the family often goes there to pray, sing, and remember the deceased. If the family is Catholic, then they will return to this place for the next 9 days to do the rosary. Also, like with traffic accidents in the US, there are often crosses alongside the road where people have been killed.
Another Catholic tradition here is to celebrate the 30th day after death. Sometimes there’s a special mass held. They also celebrate the anniversary of the death every year for nine years. Right now, Blanca’s family is celebrating the anniversary of her aunt’s death. People also go to the cemetery on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to put flowers on their parents or grandparents graves. The Day of the Dead, called Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos, is held on November 2nd here in El Salvador and is another way of remembering those who have died. I admit that one reason I really wanted to be here in November was to see the Day of the Dead celebration.
When I first arrived here I told Kathy that I hoped no one died, but if they did I wanted to go to the funeral. I find different rituals and customs surrounding death very interesting. I took several death and dying classes in college and focused on gerontology and end-of-life care in graduate school where I got my Masters of Social Work. While in grad I wrote a long research paper about “What Happens to Bodies After Death.” If you have a burning interest about this topic I’d love to chat. Thus, I appreciate being able to have a better understanding of death in El Salvador and am thankful for those people who took the time to explain things to me. Not only was this experience interesting, it might even help me professionally someday.
Note: The information about death, embalming, processions, burial, and funerals in El Salvador I learned from Blanca, Cecilia, Kathy, and personal observations. I also asked the Pastoral Team and Kathy when it was okay to take photos as I did not want to be disrespectful.