Unfortunately, last week I attended my very first funeral in Brazil. A young man in my Brazilian family lost his life in a senseless accident. My heart is broken for his parents, brother and all his aunts, uncles and cousins who will be devastated by this tragedy for some time to come.
In the midst of the mourning, I couldn’t help notice the differences between the funerals I’d attended in the States and the one I was experiencing in Brazil.
In the U.S., the funeral and mourning process is a private event. At least the many that I’ve been involved in, mostly of the Christian nature, have all followed a similar equation. First, the events may not even begin to take place until a few days after the death. A “wake” or viewing of the deceased is held in a funeral home, a private business that provides a space for family and friends to say goodbye on an individual basis, as well as connect with each other in their sorrow. I’ve yet to see more than one wake take place at the same location during the same time period at a funeral home. The following day, a private mass is held at a church in the presence of the deceased. The attendees are formally or semi-formally dressed and the tradition is to wear black. There is a eulogy given by a close family member or friend, and often more one than one person speaks. The group then travels together to the cemetery, sometimes with a police escort, where there is another ceremony and the body is placed into the ground. What follows is a gathering of the friends and family over lunch or dinner as a send-off to the memory of their now departed loved one.
Here it is so much different. At least what I experienced was, and my husband told me that what took place is standard. My initial reaction to the process was this – cold and efficient. Two words never used to describe Brazilians. Certainly not meant as a criticism, nor to describe the people involved, only an observation of the differences in the rituals. Admitting I am often an ignorant American, I had assumed all the Catholics across the world executed the process of a funeral in a similar manner. Once again, I would be wrong.
First, the deceased is put to rest within 24 hours of death. Historically, this being a warm country, it makes sense from a biology standpoint that during the days when embalming wasn’t the standard, decomposition would begin quickly. (And this particular week in Rio de Janeiro was sweltering.)
The mass does not occur until seven days later. Instead, the event begins at the graveyard. I was rather shocked to see that there was a great number of people at the cemetery when we arrived. My initial, unreasonable reaction was that the crowd was there for our relative. Then I realized that there were a number of funerals taking place, which made sense as this gentleman was laid to rest at one of Rio’s biggest cemeteries. But how could this all be happening at the same time?
The main building of the cemetery, which served as the entrance, consisted of ten or more viewing rooms, each identified with a letter over the doorway, and each held a marble slab.
Oddly for an American, but most logical for visitors, there was also a concessions stand selling hot dogs, hamburgers, snacks, sodas and, thank goodness, water. Oh yes, and no one was in a black dress and heels, as I was. (Selfishly, I thought to myself that my Brazilian husband might have mentioned the difference in funeral fashion as he watched me pack my bag for the short trip. But obviously, his mind was elsewhere.) Most of the women were wearing white and many guest wore jeans.
During the wake, a number of times a gong would ring, signaling another family’s procession to the site of burial. It felt so strange to me that so many others around us were mourning a death of someone else. But that is reality, not the sheltered and somewhat self-centered ideas about death that I had been brought up on. After four hours of our own viewing, it was time to make the sad, sad journey to lay our relative to rest.
While the process was different than I was accustomed to, the emotions were the same. Many, many visitors came to say goodbye and the sorrow was as stifling as the heat, if not more. I would love to hope that this will be my first and only experience of this kind in Brazil. But as we grow older, and those around us grow older, and life drags along, I know that this way of dealing with a death will become my own reality. I can only hope those times are as few, and as far between, as possible.
Rest in peace Leo.