Where Divergent Religious Customs Merge: Death Of An Infant In Oaxaca

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Alvin Starkman

A Voice from Oaxaca

Between the birth and the death came a crazy-quilt of only-in-Mexico experiences that resonated with my memories

Daniel Pérez González 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 one of Oaxaca’s well-known clinics. I welcomed him into the world along with Arlene, our then 13-year-old daughter Sarah, and Daniel’s abuelita (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 (Sarah’s closest friend in Oaxaca), and then Sarah.

We have a long and colorful history together, my Jewish family in my previous hometown of Toronto and my devoutly Catholic family here in Oaxaca. Chona is our comadre 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 including quince años (the fiesta when a young girl turns fifteen, with similarities to the Bat Mitzvah); we have eaten matzoh together for Passover in Toronto; and we have welcomed many a Christmas, New Year’s and Dia de Muertos together in Oaxaca.

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 eight pounds, and with a full head of black hair, the baby looked extremely 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 chord had been wrapped around his neck, causing temporary respiratory distress and the need for a few days in an incubator. But we didn’t worry, his father and cousin both obstetricians with connections in the Oaxacan 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 of respiratory distress, 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 Sam 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 Mercado de Abastos, to buy white gladioli and flower arrangements. 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 Tía 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 1,000 pesos in the likely event that Daniel would require a bóveda (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 alongside 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 various pieces of pan dulce, 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 – the week of mourning that follows the burial of a Jew.

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 el presidente 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 Tía Lolita!” We came up with many theories for the mystery bone, all revolving around the amorous activities of the dead, none repeatable in this e-zine. That kept us going until we finally came across the complete skull of Tía Lolita, still covered with the traditional fine headcloth 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 cajita, 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 we in the Judaic tradition 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 the kaddish or mourners’ prayer in a shiva home. Then more food – a rich mole negro with bolillos, tortillas, salsa – and more prayer. When the padre finally arrived late, 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 I to assist with the shoveling of earth, then invited everyone home for comida.

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.

Published or Updated on: June 2, 2007 by Alvin Starkman © 2008
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