In his latest column on life (and death) in the city, Gerald Barr ponders Colombian funerals, the way saying that final goodbye to loved ones changes a lot from culture to culture, neither one better than the other, just very different.
My son reaches up, asking: “Can I see Papito again?.” I lift him up high to look down at his grandfather. “When will he wake up?.” “Not likely”, I reply. “He’s dead.”
There is a short silence. “Does that mean he is with Grandma?,” my son asks. “Yes, possibly,” I say reflecting on the idea that my just-deceased father-in-law and recently dead mother have at last met at some celestial level, having in life been separated by country, culture, language, chronic illnesses and the Atlantic Ocean.
Their funerals could not have been further apart.
In Colombia, in the heat of a cloudless Caribbean day, dressed in our white guayaberos, we gather outside the small house where Papito lies in an open coffin.
His death had been foreseen but the end came sooner than expected. Within hours family members are dropping everything to travel to the coast from all over Colombia. Colombian funerals take place within 24 hours and everyone who possibly can is expected to attend, a fact I know well from seeing my staff suddenly disappear from their desks, some literally running out the door to say their last farewells. This means the immediate family have to deal not only with the loss of a loved one, but also arranging the church and cemetery at short notice plus receiving a huge influx of grieving mourners who need feeding and sometimes housing.
I start to fret that the Colombian funeral will turn tragedy into disaster: estranged relatives thrown into close proximity, emotions running high, a hundred hungry mouths to feed, a mad aunt who feels the need to sing ‘Mi Chavela’ at inappropriate moments, and the body in a living room approaching 40 degrees of tropical swelter.
My mother’s funeral was a playbook of pre-planned passing. A full two weeks between death and bodily disposal gave ample time to book flights, invite people, write speeches and choose the music, colour scheme, and dress code – all the while keeping a stiff upper lip.
“Wouldn’t happen like this in England,” I mutter to myself. And of course it didn’t. My mother’s funeral was a playbook of pre-planned passing. A full two weeks between death and bodily disposal gave ample time to book flights, invite people, write speeches and choose the music, colour scheme, and dress code – all the while keeping a stiff upper lip.
In the south of England, in the grey of winter, we gather in a chilly chapel at a deserted cemetery with an apparently automated crematorium operated from an electronic console embedded in the lectern. The technology seems a bit James Bond, though I suspect push-button service is aimed at reducing staff costs rather than recreating Diamonds Are Forever.
We calmly carry my dear mother in the coffin, (much lighter than I expect, probably made of MDF) to a conveyor belt inside the chapel while the reverend fiddles with her microphone and some buttons on the console. Choral music springs up. “Not that one, that is for the end,” says my sister who planned the service.
Words are said. A curtain opens automatically. The conveyor belt lurches into life and the coffin starts to slide, some music starts and abruptly stops – the reverend is having problems with the console. The lights dim and change colour, the conveyor belt stops and starts again, more music plays, the curtain starts to close, opens again, the coffin disappears, the curtain closes and it’s all over.
“That was the wrong music at the end but I don’t think mum would mind,” says my sister. That night we hold a memorial service at the local church.
Back at Papito’s Colombian funeral we are still in the house with no apparent plan, though a large quantity of chicken and rice has been doled out, cooked up by the crazy singing aunt. With no warning the coffin is closed and manhandled down the main street to the church, with a phalanx of extended male relatives moving ahead to block cars while wailing women trail behind.
One of my bugbears about Colombian roads is the slow-moving funeral corteges, but now I’m in the thick of one, struggling to keep a sweaty grasp on the heavy, smooth casket – tropical hardwood, not MDF – as the sun beats down. My father-in-law was a deeply religious man who walked this same route thousands of times in his life. So it now feels right that he make his last journey at the same pace he always did. I worry about dropping the coffin.
At last we swing into the church porch and place the coffin on a trestle. I am surprised to see no fewer than five priests sitting behind the altar and the church quickly filling. After the service, the coffin will go by hearse to the cemetery, and we must follow.
“What’s the plan now?” I ask my wife, anxious not to get left behind. But before she can answer the hearse pulls away and people start racing towards their cars – for a moment it looks like an old-style foot-race Formula 1 start – so we join the melee and jump in the first uncle’s car. There are twenty uncles and even more cars! Which route are we taking? No-one knows. We get lost but somehow still arrive at the cemetery before the hearse.
Cars pull up, people pour out, and the coffin is carried through the gate. People hug and collapse in grief, huddled among the white tombs. The murmuring of prayers rises and falls, melds, unifies, and crescendos. Psalms are incanted. There is no script, no plan, no hymn sheet or order of service, just an improvised mystery play held together by common purpose. Now we are in the final act.
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Here, as in many parts of Colombia, the dead are placed in concrete tombs that might, or might not, be their final resting places. Family tombs are frequently opened and the mummified remains of long-dead relatives removed, folded up and placed in an ossuary so as to take up less space. So when Papito arrives at the low white concrete bunker a wiry worker is sweeping out the remains of a long-dead great aunt. He then takes a hammer and chisel to chip away at the old flagstone that filled the entrance so the new larger coffin can fit.
Chip, chip, chip. The delay is brutal as we stand in the hot sun and the stonemason cleans the tomb entrance, but he cannot be rushed. Chip, chip, chip. The metre of the psalm rises and falls with his chisel. Once the entrance is clear, we manoeuvre the coffin into the tomb.
The stonemason crouches down and starts to slide a large slab of granite over the entrance. Family crowd round for their last glimpse of the coffin, some trying poke flowers into the narrowing gap, my wife’s mother collapsing against the tomb heaving sobs. The prayers crescendo again, punctuated by wails and cries of sorrow.
I’m standing so close I can see the sweat running down the stonemason’s neck as he trowels cement onto the slab and smooths it in with a slow, circular movement. I am fascinated by his slow and precise work, his detachment, a calm eye in a maelstrom of emotions. He could be plastering the garden wall. He takes a step back, gathers his tools in a bucket, and walks off leaving us alone with the sealed tomb.
We stand in silence, heads bowed. A breeze springs up. The heat flows from the afternoon air like water down a drain. I can feel the grief ebbing too, drawn away by the breeze in a moment of transcendence, gently replaced with a mantle of sadness. Someone – the singing aunt, I think – passes my wife a small stick snapped from a tree. She crouches down and scratches her father’s name in the wet cement. Later, a marble headstone will be placed there. But this will do for now.
I think back to my mother’s funeral and memorial service. No flowers – as a gardener, my mother couldn’t bear the thought of a living bloom being cut – but singing, poetry, and well-rehearsed speeches followed by snacks and wine in the vestry. We all tried our hardest not to cry (‘I’m so worried I’ll lose it during the service,” my sister confided).
That, then, is the crux of it: the raw catharsis of the Colombian coast with its impromptu goodbye, or the English farewell with every detail – and emotion – under control. Each done differently but each, in its own way, done right.
By Gerald Barr