Don Pedro is Dead: A Grave Story

They carried him off in an old brown Chrysler low-rider hearse.  If he weren’t dead in his silver coffin with the little glass window (with its door now closed) the fumes from the exhaust pipe would have killed him for sure.  One lucky man marched before the hearse with a wooden cross almost his size that had a gold-colored Jesus hanging on it.  Margarita and I walked first behind and then to the shady side of the solemnly moving vehicle from Calvary R.C. Church to the public cemetery in Chalchuapa. Adrianita moved to the sidewalk where she could jump up or down from one level to the next as she walked.  The route was only a half-dozen blocks long on Avenida Schafik-Handal, named for the deceased leader of the FMLN during its guerrilla days and after its conversion to a political party.  People waiting for buses or just standing in the shade looked on mostly disinterestedly.  One or two men approached to ask who was the guest of honor.

His name was Pedro Antonio Rivera, father of my dear friend and teaching colleague, Katti.  Before the demise of our colegio, she was Luís’ teacher.  This year, she’s become chief baker at CDI.  We have made each other laugh a lot during the past three years.  She’s played some tough tricks on me as well, but I’ve been to her home on a couple of occasions and eaten at the family table.

When I learned of her father’s death at 10:30 on Tuesday night it was a news item.  When a group of us from church arrived at the funeral home and saw Katti standing out front with an older half-brother, it became very personal.  First, because Katti was hurting and my nature kicked in, I was the first to hold her and receive a downpour of her tears on my shirt.  Second, because I remembered receiving the news of my own father’s death and the unbearable hurt, anger, and sadness that accompanied me to his funeral, some of which I carry to this day.

I never met the man.  The first time I saw him was through his little coffin window on Wednesday.  He died of lung cancer.  He was neatly dressed with a colorful vest that looked good on him.  He looked natural.  Perhaps it’s because they don’t embalm cadavers here and he’d been dead less than 24 hours.

We sat as Hno. Francisco read from John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  His homily was brief and pointedly non-denominational as the man was Catholic and we are Baptists.  Someone served us each a cookie on a paper napkin with a choice of hot chocolate or coffee.  We remained for several hours.  The women gossiped.  The boys amused themselves as tween boys will.  I took walks.  I hate doing nothing productive.

But now it was Thursday.  We met at the church.  Some of us joined a group waiting across the street in the shade.  Margarita and I opted to enter the church and endure the mass.  I assumed correctly that it would be cooler inside than out.  There was nothing special about the mass.  We sat several rows from the back on wooden benches that looked like they were hand-made.  The nave was typically long.  There was a modest crowd in attendance.  I could see Katti on the front row.  The priest was miked and his voice was easily heard from the small speakers that lined the walls.  A woman sang and the people responded.  I’d spent enough time in Catholic churches in Mexico to feel comfortable with the order of service.  Even for a funeral.

Soon enough, four men wheeled the coffin down the aisle and out the front door to the waiting hearse.  We opted to follow close behind and were shortly baking in the tropical sun.  Umbrellas were unfurled.  Margarita left hers in her large bag.  Adriana had plenty of shade on the sidewalk.

We entered the cemetery and I mentally remarked on the sign that bore the prices for use.  From common graves to mausoleums there were ridiculously low prices.  Some included ground keeping and other services.  As we approached the burial site, vendors were hawking ice cream, water, soda, and what we would recognize as Italian ices.  Children of vendors played on the tombs and ran within enclosed areas surrounding them.  No rest for the wicked! 

The hole was deep.  The sides were even and smooth.  The mountain of dirt on one side looked rich.  I thought of my garden at home and how poor the soil was.  The workers laid two ropes across the opening as the pall bearers brought the coffin to the wheeled table opposite the dirt hill.

We positioned ourselves opposite the crypt.  The coffin was not going to remain in the hole but would be slid into the niche under the stone which bore the name or names of other family.  The lettering was too worn to make out what it said.  The family gathered at the foot and a woman began to read from a paper she carried.  Another woman alongside her carried a second sheet of paper from which the first read afterward.  There was singing and typical Catholic rhetoric and responsive dialog.  It didn’t last long.  When they were done, the oldest son tearfully thanked us on behalf of the family.  The father must have been much-loved.  There was a brief silence and Katti started to sing.  A few others joined her.  I added my voice in support of my friend.  She had been crying for most of the time we were there.

When the coffin was lowered, a man jumped in the hole and pushed it into the crypt.  It ended up more to the left than to the center.  Things that are not orderly bother me.  Then someone handed him a large, bulky woven bag.  He shoved it in the space to the right of the coffin.  I asked Margarita twice what was in the bag and she told me.  But I didn’t understand what she was saying.  I decided to wait.

He climbed out and we walked away to find our friends and some shade.  I could see the workers begin the task of filling the hole.  Adrianita wanted Italian ices (minuta); I wanted to leave.  Margarita told me we had to wait until the family left and Katti could come to thank us for attending.  So I asked again about the bag.

I learned that when a family has a burial site, it is not just for one family member.  I don’t mean that it’s a plot for several graves, parents and children.  No, what happens is that wooden coffins rot and the bodies decay.  When the grave is opened for another corpse, the workers remove the skull and bones of the earlier decedents and clean up the debris from the coffin.  They place the bones in a bag and place it back into the crypt with the newly arrived member.  I had never heard of such a practice, but it made sense in this culture.  Coffins are not made of long-enduring materials.  Bodies are not preserved.  Space is relatively scarce in old cemeteries in cities that have reached their limits in growth.  So, both financial and spatial economic constraints are dealt with.  While I might be queasy handling a bag with my parents’ or grandparents’ remains, the locals are not.  It’s part of the culture.  It’s different here.

I enjoyed watching my friends’ faces as they watched mine cringe at learning this bit of information.  Then it was time to leave my morbid classroom to catch the microbus for El Refugio.  We lined up to hug Katti, say whatever comforting words we could offer, and shake her mother’s hand.  Since Pedro had children by two wives there, it was almost like “bride’s side or groom’s” as we sensed mom wasn’t totally united with the other wife’s family.  One must get used to such things in El Salvador.


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