When I left the house this morning for school Ismael and Walter were here from La Llanes. I wasn’t sure why they’d come but it looked serious. When I got home from school Kathy told me that someone from La Llanes had died last night. It was Benigno, the man who lives in the house with his wife and 14 children. Ismael and Walter had come to the house to let the Pastoral Team know what was going on. The Team offered to help with some of the expenses such as pan dulce and corn for the tortillas, coffee, sugar, plates, and cups. These are all things used as the family stays with their loved one until the funeral.
We drove to the community this afternoon around 1:30pm to see the family. All 86 of the people in the community are related either through blood or marriage. So the death of Benigno impacted everyone in the community. The road to the community is not easy to traverse. It’s the normal, bumpy canton road for a while but at the turnoff for the community it becomes very narrow and close to the edge of the mountain, which can make it dangerous during the rainy season.
As we drove along Kathy and I talked about the work of the Pastoral Team and how it related to our visit today to La Llanes. While monetary help and the development of projects in the communities here is very important, the work of the team is much more than that. It’s about solidarity and accompaniment of the people they serve. They feel that they are called to be servants in the Kingdom of God. That means when someone in a community dies, they do their best to not only provide financial assistance but to provide spiritual and emotional support as well.
There wasn’t the usual jubilant atmosphere when we arrived in La Llanes. A sadness seemed to hang over the community. We were immediately greeted by Reina, one of Benigno’s nieces, who had been crying. She embraced everyone and then led us away from the truck. I thought we might be walking to Benigno’s house but his body had been carried to the center of town to a house that is also used as a church for special services. Only 6 days previous we had been inside the same small building joyously celebrating their patron saint festival.
When we walked inside we were immediately hit by a wave of heat. I remembered how hot the room was during the mass for the celebration. The casket was in the middle of the room centered on some metal stands and surrounded by candles and flowers. A couple benches and chairs had been set up around the casket. The casket itself was small, as are most caskets purchased by people who live in the cantons, and had a small window where Benigno’s head was so people could look in to say goodbye. Ismael later told us that the casket cost $275, which is a significant amount of money when most of the people in the community are farmers who survive on what their crops produce.
Aside from the extreme heat and humidity there were other things that you wouldn’t typically associate with a visitation if you’d been in the US. Swarms of mosquitoes were buzzing around our legs and within a few minutes I already had several bites. The occasional chicken would wander into the house pecking around for bugs. Pigeons were rustling around inside some sort of box that was sitting in the corner. Every once and while one would fly out the open window and then swoop back inside.
Several family members were inside the house sitting down and talking to one another. We stayed and talked with the family for a while. They told us that Benigno had been sick for a while but it was only recently that his pain got really bad. He was at the patron saint festival last weekend as well as working on his farm. Then he got very sick on Wednesday and died that night. He probably had cancer but since people in the cantons can’t afford to go to the doctor for most aches and pains it was never diagnosed.
After a while we went outside to sit. When we were outside I decided to ask about Benigno’s physical appearance. I noticed when I’d looked into the casket that there was something white inside his mouth and nose. Cecilia told us it was white cloth used to keep an odor from escaping from his body. The odor, she told us, were the fumes from a poison used to dry the fluids in his body. I’m guessing the poison she was talking about is formaldehyde or a formaldehyde-based solution which they buy at the pharmacy and inject into the deceased.
Someone brought over coffee and pan dulce for everyone. We ate and talked to Ismael for a while. The Team said they’d make arrangements with Raul, whose family owns a big truck, to take people home tomorrow after the funeral in Berlín. In the morning several people would be accompanying the casket to Berlín at 7am and others would gradually make their way to town. We chatted a little longer but needed to leave at 4:30pm to get back to the house for a meeting. We said goodbye and told people we’d see them tomorrow.
The funeral mass and burial for Benigno was held today in Berlín. We heard the church bells slowly ringing at 2:00pm which signaled that the mass was about to start. The bells ring much slower when there is a funeral so everyone in town knows when a funeral mass is ready to begin. We arrived at church and found there were lots of people already there. We sat in our usual spot for the mass, which followed the same format as a regular mass. At one point the small choir began to sing the song “Entre tus manos” (In your hands) which is often sung at funerals. The song always makes me a little weepy. I’ve posted the lyrics to the song before but I find them so moving that I want to repost them here:
Entre tus manos está mi vida Señor,
Entre tus manos pongo mi existir,
Hay que morir para vivir.
Entre tus manos pongo yo mi ser.
Si el grano de trigo no muere,
si no muere, solo quedará,
pero si muere en abundancia dará
un fruto eterno que no morirá.
In your hands is my life Lord,
In your hands I put my existence,
We must die to live.
In your hands I put my being.
If the grain of wheat does not die,
if it does not die, it remains,
But if it does die, in abundance it will give
an eternal fruit that will not die
When the mass ended the family started carrying the casket down the aisle. As the casket came down the aisle I noticed that it looked different. I asked Kathy why Benigno had a different casket she told me that it was someone else’s casket; the mass was for Benigno as well as someone else. The casket for the other person was obviously more expensive. It looked more like a casket that you’d see in the States.
I’m not sure why, but seeing the other casket followed by Benigno’s casket made me really sad. The other person’s casket was grand, large, and white. I could tell the family of the person who died had money. Benigno’s casket was small, wooden, and fashioned like the caskets they used to make in the shape of a person instead of rectangular. I don’t know how his family managed to scrape enough money together to buy the casket for him. I tried to remember that even though we all lead very different lives and may leave this world in different ways we ultimately end up in the same place. And I don’t think it matters to God what kind of casket we have when we leave.
The caskets were carried outside and both put into different pickup trucks for the procession to the cemetery. Benigno’s casket was put into an ordinary pickup. The family had some flowers that they placed on and around the casket. The other casket was put into a pickup that had been specially designed to carry caskets. There were lots of flowers and music coming from the truck. The casket sat up on a platform above the bed of the pickup in a glass box similar to the way the casket of Jesus sits during the Good Friday procession. Seeing the differences again made me sad. I put on my sunglasses so no one could see me crying.
It took about 30 minutes to walk to the cemetery. When we arrived we had to wait outside for a while so the other person’s family could have a brief service right inside the walls of the cemetery as is custom here. Cecilia and Kathy were sitting on the sidewalk comforting Carmen, one of Benigno’s sisters, who had completely broken down into tears. Suddenly a crowd surrounded one of the girls in the family who’d passed out. Then one of Benigno’s nephews passed out right next to us.
I guess they were prepared for this because someone quickly went to both people to attend to them. The woman had what appeared to be a bottle of tequila in her hands. I later found out it was something called siete espíritus (seven spirits) which is a kind of alcohol they sell in pharmacies to help revive people who’ve fainted. The woman put some of the liquid on her hands and put it under peoples’ noses to help them regain consciousness. When she came around to the man next to us she put some of it on his face as well.
Slowly the man began to come around. Ismael was sitting next to him and supporting him in case he passed out again. The girl who fainted didn’t seem to wake up. Thankfully, we saw a police truck passing by and stopped them. There’s no hospital in town so they were going to take her to the clinic. Another family member got into the truck with her and the police and sped away. During this time Kathy and Cecilia were still with Carmen while I tried to keep an eye on two little girls. The other family had carried their casket away and Benigno’s casket was set up on metal stands so people could say goodbye one last time
Soon it was time to proceed to the gravesite to bury him. We slowly made our way there. What happened in the next 20 minutes seemed like pure chaos. Several other people fainted as Benigno’s body was being lowered into the ground by family members. The woman with the siete espíritus went around to each person to try to revive them. Two different men had to be restrained because they were angry and tried to run toward the casket. I think they were upset because they didn’t want him to be buried. It took six men to hold down one of the guys who was yelling and sobbing at the same time.
María, Benigno’s wife, had also passed out cold. Several women carried her to a tomb and laid her down on it. They tried fanning her and putting the spirits under her nose to revive her but to no avail. It was all a bit surprising and a lot to take in. I’ve never seen so many people so grief stricken at a funeral. It’s hard to see people in that much pain. It’s hard to know what to do in situations like that. I don’t think there’s much you can do other than be there, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, with the people who are suffering.
The family eventually finished filling in the hole and we made our way back to the front of the cemetery. The people who’d passed out were taken to the clinic here in Berlín in mototaxis with other family members. We stayed for a little longer to be with the remaining family and make sure the truck arrived to take them home to La Llanes. Before leaving we made sure people had the phone number of the Pastoral House and told them to call if they needed anything. We said goodbye and began the walk home. I’ll end my blog with something that I found and read at my grandfather’s funeral:
Death is just another step along life’s changing way,
No more than just a gateway to a new and better day,
And parting from our loved ones is much easier to bear
When we know that they are waiting for us to join them “There”-
For it is on the Wings of Death that the living soul takes flight
Into the “Promised Land Of God” where there shall be “No Night”-
So death is just a natural thing, like the closing of a door,
As we start upon a journey to a new and distant shore-
And none need make the journey undirected or alone,
For God promised us safe passage to the vast and great unknown-
So let your grief be softened and yield not to despair,
You have only placed your loved one in the loving Father’s care.
“Be not afraid, only believe”. Mark 5:36