My friend Martha's mother died the day after Christmas, after several months of increasingly painful suffering. I think her given name was Maria Louisa, but I knew her as Doña Licha - people here in Suchitoto called her Niña Licha, but I haven't yet managed to get comfortable with addressing a woman of my own age, more or less, as a niña, child. I used to meet Doña Licha in better days when she was on the way to market, and we'd stop and exchange hugs. Martha sometimes brought me tamales her mother had made. And one day, when our medical mission team was visiting Suchitoto, as we do on each mission, Doña Licha came to our house to have her ulcerated leg treated by Dr. Jon Dykstra, a specialist in wound care. Here they are, Doña Licha in blue on the left:
The customs of death are very beautiful among Catholic families here. The funeral mass and burial almost always take place the day after the death. Then for eight days the house is transformed into a shrine with flowers and santos and a photo or two, and friends and neighbors and family come by each night to recite the rosary and sing - or just to stand by and be present. On the 9th day, this season of intense mourning closes with a memorial Mass, and then everyone gathers for El Último, the last night of mourning, and some stay with the family all through that night to the next morning.
I was able to join in on one Rosario after I returned from Guatemala and the small house was crammed so full of people that you would not imagine it could hold any more. When Maria del Carmen and I returned for El Último, there were people sitting in rows of chairs in the street outside the house and more people inside. Martha and her sister Orbelina invited us to come in through the side door which usually leads to a yard full of chickens and ducks and dogs and a green parrot. All the animals were elsewhere (I wonder who does the duck-sitting?), the yard was swept and neat, and huge, really HUGE iron bowls of tortillas were waiting. Martha and Orbe and a few friends had worked all morning to make an unimaginable number of tamales, the traditional food served in El Último, and soon we were sitting with tamales and cookies and coffee or hot chocolate. Meanwhile, in the main sala of the house, the singing and prayers continued, as they were to do all through the night.
What a rich religious tradition this is! The rosary is beautifully at the center of these nine days of prayer and mourning, and all around the edges of that murmur of ongoing prayer people share memories and condolences, connect with the family, remember Doña Licha. For over a week the family is held and upheld, even as they work so hard to prepare everything. It may be a relief to come to that 10th day when the house can slowly come back to normal - but as Martha said to me, it will also be very lonely.