While we were all busy Easter Sunday
Watching Judas be blown up
Daughter of my neighbor and friend, Petra,
Died, age 39.
Tuesday, Petra and I had a good cry together
The bread truck came
Bread and pastries were picked out
For the funeral, the rosaries
the prayers and the nine novenas.
Because Petra is our neighborhood tamale lady,
There are no more tamales on the corner
Until the services are over.
The family that lives nearby begins to arrive
And 25 family members from the USA
Will fly in Thursday.
Food is cooked
People stop by
Crying is heard throughout the day
Upon the arrival of every new person.
Chairs start arriving on Wednesday
We loan our fans to keep the body cool,
As well as benches and chairs.
There must be twenty grandchildren
Running around the neighborhood
Playing dolls, talking and laughing
Clacking those annoying ball toys
While I have no real idea
Of exactly how to handle my part
Petra is my good friend
Who I sit with
On the step outside her house
On hot nights, for small visits.
So I bake meals for the family,
Cookies and fruit salad,
Spaghetti for the funeral
The day that family and Maricela fly in
President Obama arrives with them.
They are held in the air over Mexico City
Circling for an hour and a half
While Air Force One fighter jets,
Which they can see from the plane,
Clear the air and escort them in.
This is a nice story they will be able to tell
As the years go by.
Their arrival time here
Was to have been 6pm
At four, we hear that the delay
Will be longer than anticipated
Due to the larger than anticipated
Pile of paperwork to import a body
The wake will not begin until 9pm
But people arrive anyway
To pay respects and pray.
The courtyard is set up theatre style
The room that the body is to be laid out in
Has a red velvet curtain on one wall
A large pewter statue of Jesus
Candles and flowers
A piece of cardboard
Taped to the floor
With white powder
Two inches deep
In the shape of a cross
A mystery we don’t yet understand.
The casket will lay over this.
More and more flowers arrive.
At 7pm, the singing begins
Between bouts of tears
Petra and others lead the songs
That will bring Maricela here.
There is worry that she will be held up
In airport customs.
Prayers are being said
Crying and wailing
As more people arrive.
Kids are playing in the street
People go in for a while
Come back out on the street
The crowd grows.
Tonight entire families come
Different from other days
Where there will be more women than men
For the 9 days of rosaries that will follow.
At 9pm there is word.
They have arrived at the veladoras
The body is being prepared
She is dressed in her pearl laden
Wedding gown and floral veil
Laid out in a white casket.
More prayers, more tears.
It has turned into a full blown ritual
Arrivals of family and friends
Lighting of candles
Prayers, songs, prayers songs
Tears and wails
Prayers and songs.
At 10 they call from the highway
And will be here momentarily
The anticipation is high
There are about 100 people in the street
As many, if not more, inside
It is like waiting
For a baby to be born.
Tiny elderly women and men
Families with children
Teenagers and babies
Pulls up in front of the house
Petra and her daughters
And their daughters
Are beside themselves crying
As the casket is removed
And placed in front of the altar
Everyone moves aside
As the entire family
Gathers around the altar
Opens the casket, and cry together.
In the courtyard
The women begin singing
Prayers to Mary
Songs to Jesus
To the holy spirit
To all the saints
To all the animals and bird
To open their arms to her.
There isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The neighbors and friends
Pass by the body, crossing themselves
The rosary begins
All the hail Mary’s
Prayers I don’t understand in Spanish
Orations seeking permission
To intercede on the behalf of God
This goes on the entire night
The body is not left alone
Circles of prayer and song
Petra’s generation of friends,
A group of women her age
Her long time friends
Show up at 1am.
It starts all over again
The tears and wails
Food, which seems to calm everyone
And just when you think
The tears are gone
Someone new arrives
And it begins again.
The cycle of grief over and over.
Someone reads the names
Of all the saints
All the Virgins
The holy spirit
All the elements
All the animals
To a response after each one
‘Ruega por ella
‘Pray for her’
We went across the street
To our house to sleep
There are so many people
At their house –
They cannot possibly
All take showers
Or have a bit of rest and quiet
So we gave them our house key
Something we have never done
So they can come through as needed
Throughout the rest of the night
To shower and clean up
While we sleep.
The barriers are breaking down
No one feels like just neighbors anymore
It’s more like a big family
Whose job it is to help each other
Through something big.
I am awake at 6:30
I make fruit salad
Two large papayas
It makes two very large bowls of fruit
Which I take over with yoghurt and granola.
A few had gone to sleep
But others were sitting with Maricela
Praying and talking quietly.
I pass by Maricela
For my last goodbye.
Roses had been placed
In the coffin,
Covering her entire body
She is gorgeous.
I told everyone
Just come over when you need a shower
The door is unlocked.
One by one the women and girls
Just walk in and go take a shower
It’s so funny to open our house that way
Americans don’t open their houses here,
But it feels good and right and everyone
Is very appreciative and kind
The singing is loud so all will hear
The last rosary begins
The chairs are filled
People are in the street
The family gathers around the Altar
With Maricela who will make
Her last voyage through town
Her last mass
Her last walk past the Jardin
Her last view of the Parroquia
Down Zacateros and the Ancha
To the cemetery.
Just when you think you are cried out
Songs are being sung
Prayers, chants and orations
People giving the sign of the cross
Over and over
As Maricela’s husband and children
My friend Petra and her children
Say their last goodbyes
And the coffin is closed.
Petra’s cousin Victoria
Leads the singing
In a voice so crisp and clear.
The men take over
Lift the coffin
Carry it out the door
Down the steps
More men in the street
Holding them on the walkway
So they don’t slip off
How do people still sing
When the tears are so strong?
We fall in behind the hearse
About 75 of us
Following the words of Victoria
And the songs that go with the orations
On the 25 minute walk to the church
Where mass is said
Songs are sung
Maricela is offered to God.
Petra’s many sons
Have hired a mariachi band
To lead the way to the cemetery
Which is a surprise for her
As she loves Mariachis.
By now, there are about 300 of us
The procession covers over one whole block
As we pass by the Parroquia
And wind our way to the panteon
Enjoying the lightness
Of the mariachi music
Noticing how quiet the streets are
How all the men standing in doorways
Take off their hats
Place them on their chests
While the women cross themselves
And the Americans take pictures.
It’s another view
Being inside the procession.
It is a relief to be at the cemetery.
It’s hot, everyone’s tired
Half the people are sunburned
The coffin is carried to the gravesite
The opening is not large enough
The diggers make it larger
While we wait
The mariachis are a blessing
It goes so fast
Soon the hole is big enough.
No prayers are said at the gravesite
Which is a surprise to me
I was expecting another rosary.
The coffin is dropped down
The dirt hits the top of a coffin
With a thud,
Which prompts the crying
Followed by flowers
A mixture of beauty
And the finality
Of a life.
Everyone is crying
Mariachis are playing sad songs
Is holding the framed picture of her mother
Standing with her father, and brother.
The gravesite is decorated
With large standing arrangements,
Smaller bouquets and individual arrangements,
All facing inward for Maricela to see.
Young boys assist the grave diggers
By splashing water from buckets
Getting people’s feet wet
While they water the flowers.
When it is all decorated,
We all stand around
Listening to the music.
The mariachis play a song
Which I am not familiar with
But a song that makes the family
Clap and sing.
The men, who do not cry openly
All have tears streaming down
This part is over
Everyone is exhausted
There have been a hundred and one
Ways to unlock your grief
If one doesn’t work
Another certainly will,
Whether it be a person,
Or watching someone else be moved,
They just keep at it
Until it happens.
Back at the house
There is a TON of food
Large bottles of soda sit on all the tables
Tequila is being poured discreetly
In the kitchen, and delivered
To the men at tables
Who suck on a lime
And empty their cup.
An altar is set up
In the room that Maricela’s coffin was
The cardboard with the white cross
Which was under the coffin
Holds candles, tostadas and drinks.
Maricela’s photo is placed on the table
Along with flower arrangements
That were held back for this altar.
A rosary is draped over the photo
A photo of her husband, son and daughter
Sits next to hers.
This is where the rosaries
The Novenas for the next nine days
Will be held.
More to come…
5 thoughts on “Maricela, Rest in Peace”
The white cross is made of “cal” (lime). It is a very old custom and is usually only performed when the wake is done in the home as opposed to a funeral parlor. The cross remains in place during the novena and is carefully tended with candles around it and takes the place of the deceased whose body has already gone to the grave. After the nine day mourning period the cal is gathered up and taken to the burial site and sprinkled over the grave as the soul is finally put to rest.
What an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing it with us.
The intense spirituality and ritual you so carefully described are poetic and cathartic. Thank you for this dignified portrayal of how this enigmatic culture celebrates death.