Grieving cross-culturally

I’ve been on hiatus from blogging since the holidays. Though this is intended to be a light-hearted blog, when I sat down at my computer to write this week, it felt impossible to ignore the heaviness my family is feeling right now. The start of 2017 took a devastating turn when my 16-year-old niece was killed in a car accident.  We are all still in various stages of shock and grief.  The loss is a difficult one to even allow to sink in.  I feel a bit like a chronic griever at this point.  Is that a thing?  I’ve had five major losses of loved ones in the last five years.  Jorge, in the last two years, has also lost all three of his abuelos (grandparents), not seeing them for over a decade and not having the opportunity to say good bye.  Still, saying good bye to my niece is the most heartbreaking.

As Jorge and I have talked each evening about our feelings, memories, and realizations, I have learned so much about the differences in how we grieve the death of loved ones in Mexican and American cultures and, indeed, how we celebrate the life of those loved ones.  I thought it would be interesting to share some of the traditions.

Jorge described what happens in the hours, days, weeks, and years following a loved one’s death.  I did some researching online to see if his account is pretty typical of Mexican culture, and for the most part, it is.

Mexican Traditions Following a Death

When a loved one dies, they are brought back to the family home, covered in a white sheet and laid on a table in the main room of the house.  An altar of flowers, photos, candles, religious icons, etc. is assembled. Candles are lit around the perimeter of the body, beginning the Velorio, a 24-48 hour prayer vigil held in the home.  The velorio serves the same function as the visitation or wake in American culture.  Family and friends gather at the home to pay their respects.  Food and drink, always a staple in Mexican gatherings, is shared by visitors and family.  The tradition is for the family to continue the altar and prayers for nine days after the death.  Funeral services typically take place in a church, given Mexico’s mostly Catholic background, and are led by a priest.  Personal belongings, such as clothes and shoes are placed in the simple wooden coffins with the loved one, to be used in the afterlife.  Following the service, a funeral procession, often consisting of the whole town, walks or drives the coffin to the local cemetery for the burial. Forty days after the death, another day of prayer begins.  The altar is refreshed, and the family spends another day in prayer for the soul of the departed.  On the anniversary of the death each year, the family gathers again for a dinner and celebration of the loved one’s life.  Stories are told, photos are displayed, and the loved one comes once again to life through the memories shared.

Dia de los Muertos

You may also know about the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd.  In some regions of Mexico, there are more vibrant celebrations on this day.  In Veracruz, where Jorge is from, he says altars are assembled in the lead up with flowers, incense, candles, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), and decorations like papel picado (intricately cut paper).  The altars are to entice the spirits of dead loved ones to visit.  On Dia de los Muertos, families often have a dinner together (what’s new?) and visit the cemetery to fix up the graves of loved ones.  This is a day to visit the graves, clean up around the site, bring flowers, and say prayers.  In the more vibrant celebrations, towns have music, food, and brightly colored decorations at the cemetery.  You might see the painted skeleton faces we associate with Dia de los Muertos.  And revelers tell stories and share memories of those lost.  Though the celebration may seem offensive to Americans, it is much more a celebration of life than a grieving period.  As Mexicans typically believe strongly in an afterlife, it’s a time to invite the spirits back to Earth for a day, as they celebrate the love they shared in their Earthly life.

So Close to the Body

As Jorge and I talked about the different traditions, I was taken aback by the proximity of the family to the body of the departed.  I’m not sure I could handle that aspect of the process with as much grace as they do.  But for Mexican families, they are still responsible for the loved one, in life and in death, and taking care of the body is just another piece of that responsibility.  Jorge explained that our practice of cremation or closed casket funerals makes it difficult for him to fully accept a death.  He needs the proximity to the body for the loss to sink in.  For me, an open casket is haunting.

Children are always present at these gatherings.  It is widely accepted that children confront death along with the family.  It is another part of life.  Here we tend to shield our children from that reality until they are old enough to understand.  But perhaps that’s unnecessary.  They would understand if we let them.  And maybe death would not be so difficult to handle in our adult lives if it were always embraced as a part of life itself.

For me, it’s difficult.  I grieve.  But even in grief I am inspired by other cultures.  I look forward to creating our own altar to celebrate loved ones and our own celebrations of Dia de los Muertos. We certainly have many to grieve… and many to celebrate.



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