The Funeral


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.

IMG_3793 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.


Gallery | This entry was posted in Foreigner Insights and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Funeral

  1. I have also noticed the difference. I like the swiftness and the way that the body looks so fabulous. (I have not experienced the delay in the mass however, but that could be because we are so far out there that long-distance peeps don’t travel. It is a funeral for who is here.)

    I have noticed people die more here, and younger.

    • Oh, that’s not good (the young deaths). I experienced a much greater than average number of funerals for young people when I was young, so it is harder for me to compare. Do they do the mass the same day there?

  2. Karina says:

    My heart goes with your husband’s family, BAB. I’m sorry for your loss.
    Embalming is something expensive down here. A couple of months ago my friend’s mother died and they had to embalm her due to her condition, and may friend told me that it was very expensive. In São Bernardo (my hometown) the ‘funerária’ service belongs to the city, but if you need the embalming service you have to hire an outsource company, as my friend did.
    I was surprised when my friends in US explained to me about the funeral services. Although it’s something that you usually see on movies I have to admit that I have never thought about that. My professor’s daughter got a college degree to be a mortician (funeral director) in Dallas. I think this whole process is really beautiful.

    I’ve seen some adds about funeral homes, even on Sunday newspapers, maybe this process will become more common here. I just don’t know if I would prefer the american way because it’s such a tiring moment. When my father passed away I was exhausted before the burial happened, I just want everything to be over.

    I really don’t want to sound gross (even knowing it is), but although we could think that embalming is better for the nature, as you don’t have the decomposition problem, the bacterias from the tummy and all of that, when you have the decomposition going natural, in 5 years the place is empty so you can remove the remains and use the ‘box’ to someone else. My family has a spot in the cemitery called ‘perpetua’, it has 6 ‘drawers’ (gavetas in Portuguese), and it’s been reused since the 60’s. I don’t know if you saw that some graves have a bunch of names there, it’s only possible due to this :).

    • Thanks Karina. Yes, the whole thing happened very quickly and I wonder if it is better for the family that way. In the U.S., the family sometimes feels pressure to actually be “hosts” and to spend time with guests. In this case, I didn’t see that. The poor mother was just draped on the (closed) casket and the father, while taking on a bit more of the greeting role, was allowed to just mourn. And then it was done. I supposed at the mass this week it will be different, but the parents have some time to recover, if only slightly. That is so interesting about the reusing of the space. We live a half a block from a graveyard and sometimes take walks through it (the sculptures are so amazing it’s like walking through a museum). I’ve often wondered how they would fit all the bodies in the crypts – now I know!

  3. Tiffany says:

    Losing someone is always hard, even if they are ‘extended’ family. I am sorry for your loss.

    My husband’s grandpa passed away while we were in Brazil for Christmas (actually on Christmas day) and everything moved so fast. His family didn’t have a wake (Protestant, not Catholic), just a viewing and a burial, and it was so different than any funeral I had experienced before. Everyone showed up in jeans, hung out, cried a little, someone read a Bible verse, said a prayer, and then they carried the coffin over and put it in the spot. The end. Like you said, very efficient. But not what I was used to nor expected.

  4. Lindsey says:

    I experienced something similar in Brazil at the two funerals I attended… Cold and efficient. Although not efficient (and horrifying) was when they realized they couldn’t get the coffin to the burial spot because it wouldn’t fit between the stones and they TURNED THE COFFIN ON ITS SIDE TO MANOEUVRE IT THROUGH!!!! yes, that was shocking for me.
    Also, that same day there was a funeral for one of the Velha Guarda do Beija-Flor samba school and – I kid you not – there was a complete samba procession to take that guy out to his burial spot. Talk about differences!!

    • OMG. Yes, poor planning. Yikes. The samba thing reminded me that nearly all of the caskets headed toward burial were covered with a banner of the deceased favorite futebol team – including my relative. You might see that every once in awhile if the person was a HUGE football or baseball fan, but very rare. In this case, every one I saw had the banner.

  5. So sorry for your family’s loss.

    I’m glad you wrote about this, it’s something that we have been lucky enough not to experience there, but I was curious. I love cemeteries and have visited several while in Brazil, but never saw a funeral.

    Hopefully it will be a long time before any of us have to attend one.

  6. Marina says:

    It’s interesting to see your perspective, and I would agree that the funeral process is quite callous at home. I would attribute it to two main causes – cost, as above reviews have mentioned, and the general Brazilian attitude towards death. You may or may not have noticed, but it’s very very rare to see graveyards inside a city in Brazil. And almost any graveyard, no matter the location, will have tall stone walls surrounding it. All part of the death taboo and religious superstitions, I guess – many Brazilians will also make the sign of the cross when they pass graveyards. My mother thought it was atrocious when she saw so many graveyards inside cities in America, and all so open and visible as well. In my opinion it all still points towards a fear of death in the culture, something I do wish there was less of. Just a bit of cultural tidbit!

    • Very interesting! Yes, all the graveyards I’ve seen have the huge walls around them and are gated. I guess I attributed this to trying to stop the homeless from sleeping there. I can imagine your mother was appalled at our exposure to the dead! I guess I should stop casually walking my dog and my kid through there. Thanks for the comment!

  7. Pingback: How I Know Things Will be Different | born again brazilian

  8. Mike says:

    I am surprised about the death taboo when spiritual religions and beliefs such Macumba etc are so popular

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s