Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's been a long blog silence, for a couple of reasons. I've been really, really busy this past week, getting ready (I hope) for our cataract surgery brigade, and that process has been more complicated than usual. But the real reason is that I've been shocked and deeply saddened by Gema Rodriguez' death. My usual reaction in such times is to go inside - which may be helpful to me, but doesn't do much for anyone else.

So I'm breaking silence to tell you a little bit about how Gema was lovingly waked and buried. It's hugely different from death in the U.S. where an undertaker shows up in a black suit and whisks the body away. Here the undertaker - not sure if there's a comparable term in espaƱol - showed up at Hospital Bloom in a pickup truck, wearing jeans and a tight shirt. She and the pickup and Sonia, Gema's mother, went in together to reclaim the body and put it in the coffin - which must have been, like everything that day, a nightmare for Sonia.

Meanwhile, other family members had come to Bloom to be with Sonia. They and the pretty white coffin rode together in the back of the pickup, while I drove Sonia and a couple more folk back toward San Juan Opico. Thanks to the great generosity of one of the donors who has been helping Gema and the family, we were able to pay for the funeral and burial expenses. It's not much from a U.S. standpoint, but it would have been a crushing and impossible burden for this poor family.

Gema was waked together with an aunt of Sonia's who had died on the same day in Hospital Rosales, the San Salvador national hospital. The two coffins sat in state for a day and two nights in a room in the community where most of Sonia's family lives, and people came to pray and visit and drink coffee and sit in the plastic chairs supplied by the funeral home, while the turkeys and geese and ducks wandered around outside. The larger family, like many here, is a mixture of Catholic and Evangelical, and the prayers and music were various.

When I arrived on Tuesday, the yard and house were packed. All the schoolchildren from Gema's school had come to say goodbye to their friend, all the family and neighbors were there, including Gema's sisters Julia and Kelly and her brother Jarrison. Two pickup trucks had been transformed into hearses by the addition of glass-sided catafalques and holders for flowers. Family members carried out the two coffins, and we processed slowly to the graveyard. Normally, it's a true procession, with the mourners walking behind the coffin, but the distance was a little too great for that, so we - the two pickup hearses, a large number of pickups and trucks full of people, and a couple of cars, including mine - drove, but at a funereal walking pace of about 2 miles an hour.

At the graveyard the coffins were arranged for a final viewing, prayers (Evangelical) were said, the coffins were lowered, and young men took on the work of shoveling as we all stood in silence.
This week Sonia's mother, who represents the Catholic side of the family, has been holding the nightly rosary that will culminate in the ultimado, a night of mourning and celebration, on the 8th day.

These final rites are very direct, very beautiful, and very matter-of-fact in El Salvador, where death is so much more frequently a part of a family's life. The richer folk in this country may be buried in one of the grand new cemetaries with astroturf carpets available to hide the earthiness of the grave, but most Salvadorans will come to country graveyards followed by a procession of those who loved them. To my eyes, these ceremonies are fitting and loving, but nothing takes away the sorrow left by the death of a beloved child.

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