Where divergent religious customs merge… Death of an Infant in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Daniel Perez Gonzalez was a beautiful baby. His parents Flor and Jorge thought so; my wife Arlene and I agreed. Few are able to share our certainty, though, because we were among the very few to see him alive. Daniel was born in a Oaxacan hospital. I welcomed him into the world along with Arlene, our daughter Sarah, and Daniel’s grandmother, Chona. From the womb, the nurse passed our newest extended family member into three sets of anxiously loving arms—Chona’s, those of his big sister Carmela, and then Sarah.

We have a long and colorful history together, my Jewish family in my previous hometown of Toronto and this devoutly Catholic family in Oaxaca. Chona is one of our many comadres and matriarch of her family. Not six months earlier, she and her grandchildren had shouted Mazel Tov at Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah in Toronto. Over the years we have raised many a glass of mezcal at milestone birthdays; we have eaten matzoh together for Passover in Toronto; and we have welcomed many a Christmas, New Year’s and Day of The Dead celebrations together in Mexico.

But it was Daniel’s death that reinforced for me, through much laughter and many tears, the profound irrelevance of cultural differences in the face of universal rituals surrounding death.

On the day of his birth, it was easy to imagine that Daniel’s life would unfold like Sarah’s. At 8 pounds, and with a full head of black hair, the baby looked healthy. Like my wife’s, Flor’s pregnancy had been full-term. Like Sarah, Daniel was born by caesarian section; like Sarah, his mother’s umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck, causing respiratory distress and the need for time in an incubator. But we didn’t worry, his father and cousin were both obstetricians with connections in the Oaxaca medical community. He would receive the best post-natal care available, and we would dance at his wedding one day. But then their paths diverged. After two days of life, we mourned little Daniel’s death, beside his coffin in Chona’s living room, with family, friends and compadres.

Between the birth and the death came a crazy-quilt of only-in-Mexico experiences that resonated with my memories of the mourning process my Canadian family had undergone when my father died a few years earlier.

Most Oaxacans accept that death hits you at home – literally. Daniel left the hospital in a white, ornately-adorned satin-lined coffin, bound not for a funeral home, but for the living room of the family compound. Once he was settled atop a table covered with fresh linen, with a large silver crucifix behind him, my compadre Javier and I were dispatched to the Central de Abastos market to buy white flowers. This was a far cry from the somber discussion of formal arrangements at Toronto’s Steeles Memorial after my father’s death.

In this passionate and expressive country, even death rites are incomplete without the drama of shouting and accusations. At the cemetery, I learned that Daniel was to be interred in a low tomb-like grave atop Tia Lolita, his great-great-aunt who had died in 1990, who was layered over yet another relative who had died in 1982.

But when we met with the head undertaker, el presidente, at Lolita’s graveside only hours after Daniel’s death, we were advised that annual fees hadn’t been paid in ten years. Much shouting ensued, but in the end, after heated debate, el presidente had successfully “extorted”, as was his right, thousands of pesos for arrears of government taxes and administrative fees-plus about 1000 pesos in the likely event that Daniel would require a boveda (literally a vault, the rebar reinforced concrete slabs designed to keep the grave’s occupants in an orderly configuration). And we still weren’t done. Only once Chona had presented sufficient historical documents to convince everyone that she indeed had the requisite authority to bury Daniel above Lolita, were the appropriate certificate and receipts issued.

Back at Chona’s home, mourners had begun to arrive. Shortly thereafter Jorge and I dropped off 150 pastries, to be used to dip into the traditional hot chocolate served to those attending such gatherings. I then experienced another profound frisson of déjà vu. The notably slower pace of Oaxaca’s ‘mañana’ society was gone. With efficient dispatch, Chona and family transformed the home into a grieving chamber, arranging for necessities such as chair rentals, and ordering attendees off to kitchen duty. There under Chona’s roof I traveled back in time to my mother’s kitchen, crowded with friends and relatives I hadn’t seen in years, just after my father’s funeral. I could hear my mother’s friend Rayla organizing who would bring what meals into our home during shiva.

Then there were the inevitable tragicomic moments. When I gave my father’s eulogy, I couldn’t resist telling a story about him that made reference to a shared moment that involved passing gas. In Mexico, the black humor of death is even more visceral. When Chona and I went back to the cemetery to ensure that preparations for the burial were well underway, we found His Highness and his aide a half-foot down, at the top concrete plate of the vault—along with part of a human jawbone. Chona was outraged, and began shouting, “that can’t be Tia Lolita!”

We came up with many theories for the mystery bone, all revolving around the amorous activities of the dead, none repeatable here. That kept us going until we finally came across the complete skull of Tia Lolita, still covered with the traditional fine head cloth to prevent mosquito bites. We ultimately concluded that a few years back someone else had been buried alongside Lola. Mystery of the extra jawbone solved.

Here in southern Mexico, multiple burials in the same grave, at times at different levels, and at times involving the removal of bones after several years of non-payment of fees, may occur. In any event, in return for a handsome gratuity, el presidente agreed to clear away a spot for Daniel’s little coffin, and hide Lolita’s head and any other remaining bones in a sack at one end of the grave opening. The funeral would take place the next day, not unlike the dispatch with which Jews bury their dead – but very different from the traditional adult Oaxacan death custom characterized by several days of prayer, visitation and other rituals prior to burial, similar in purpose and function to the Jewish period of shiva after the interment.

Later that evening back at the house, we listened to a cassette recording of nursery rhymes. Although in the Judaic tradition we are not permitted music during mourning, these tunes seemed appropriate. Arlene tenderly placed a small rattle beside Daniel, in accordance with local custom. A young woman led a 20-minute prayer, strikingly similar in nature to kaddish in a shiva home. Then more food – mole negro, tortillas and salsa – and more prayer. When the padre finally arrived, there was the obligatory humor about the clergy; someone joked that he had just shown up for a meal.

By the following afternoon, we were placing a bountiful display of flowers into the back of a pick-up. Javier and I took final photographs of the baby, and then Jorge placed his son into the back of a 1980s white stationwagon, for his final journey.

The cemetery ritual combined the continuing familiarity of my own Canadian experiences with Mexicana. A few soft prayers, a few handfuls of earth placed atop the coffin, and incongruously our two congenial cemetery workers placed the concrete slab back between the remaining portions of the lid to the vault, then mixed and applied cement to seal the boveda. Reminiscent of Jewish custom, Chona asked Javier and me to assist with the shoveling of earth, then invited everyone home for a large luncheon.

Back at the house there was no music. Idle chatter took its place. Eventually, once most of the people had left, and only the barren white altar and the slowly burning mourners’ candles remained, Arlene and I decided to go downtown for a walk, sad and emotionally drained, but oddly comforted. After a Oaxacan funeral for a Catholic baby, I felt exactly the way I did the first time I walked outside after arising from my father’s shiva.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational

Excursions of Oaxaca.


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