My mother married the man who cremated my father. I know it sounds strange, but rituals and traditions surrounding death run in our family. My grandfather collected slides of his friends in their coffins. It was his hobby. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would gather around the slide projector, while my grandfather clicked his way through the macabre photos of our deceased neighbors. “Doesn’t Uncle Hap look peaceful?” or “My goodness, who did Aunt Mary’s make-up?” “She looks twenty years younger.” We thought everyone had these conversations before a big turkey dinner.
When my mother remarried, she helped my step-father prepare the bodies for their final viewing. She did what comes naturally..setting hair, applying make-up, and dressing the women in their finest church clothes. If the women had unnatural looking arms, my mother knitted pastel colored shawls to cover their imperfections. Soon, she had a thriving business knitting and selling shawls to funeral homes nationwide. When she saw a need, she provided a creative solution.
So, when Robinson called me to say that Jerry passed away of a heart-attack, I asked what I could do to help. Jerry was a gringo and he left no family members behind. “I really need some help preparing his body,” Robinson pleaded. “Do you think you could help me?”
In Nicaragua, there is no embalming. Family members have 24 hours to prepare the body and bury their loved one. Usually, the spouse is responsible for preparing the body for burial, but since Jerry had no family members, I volunteered. After all, my grandfather and my mother had prepared me for this moment, so I did what came naturally.
From the time a person dies, the body is never to be left alone. Typically, a wake or a vela is held in the home of the deceased immediately following the death. But, in Jerry’s case, he had no family and few friends. We weren’t going to hold a vela, but the neighbors were outraged! “Everyone needs a vela. He cannot be left alone. We will prepare the food,” they demanded. Norman was hired to spread the word. The gigantic speakers on the back of his pick-up truck broadcast the vela throughout Moyogalpa.
The main difference between a wake and a vela is defined by hundreds of plastic rented chairs. Robinson’s family has a chair rental business, so in the blink of an eye, hundreds of white plastic chairs were lined up on the street. Jerry’s coffin was moved to the porch, and at 7 pm sharp, people gathered to pay their respects. Theresa brought fresh cut flowers from her garden for the top of his coffin. We opened the little window that was at the top of the coffin, so people could pray at his body and pay their condolences.
It is customary that people coming to visit the family will give them sweet coffee and pan dulce or sweet bread. The coffee is extra strong because the people are expected to stay with the body all night. A vela doesn’t end until sunrise. Of course, the closer you are to the family, the longer you are expected to stay. The exception being the drunks…they show up at velas for the coffee, bread, and beer or guaron ( sort of like moonshine) and drink the entire night.
Unlike a funeral in the United States, a vela is a lively party for the dearly departed. People play cards all night, and pass the guaron around from one drunk to another. Ron commented on one annoying drunk that was stumbling over Jerry’s coffin and slobbering all over the little window. “What if he knocks the coffin off the porch?” I shuddered with the thought of Jerry rolling out of his coffin and down the street. Although, we found it to be very disrespectful, the local Nicaraguans consider it to be very much a part of a vela. When I mentioned the drunk to the neighbor serving coffee, she looked at me kind of funny as if she had never imagined a vela without drunks. Someone else commented that the drunks lighten the mood and keep the family awake until sunrise. Unfortunately, this drunk was a little too lively and Robinson said they had to call the police after we left.
At sunrise, the vela ends and the funeral procession starts. Most of the time, the coffin is paraded through the streets on the backs of strong young men. However, Robinson hired a pick-up truck to carry Jerry’s coffin. At 8 am, the procession began and we walked slowly behind the pick-up truck on or way to the cemetery.
Once we arrived at the grave site, the grave diggers had completed digging a deep trench and the little window of the coffin was opened for one last peek. Then, Jerry was slowly lowered into the flower lined hole by strong men with ropes. We threw the remainder of Theresa’s flowers over the coffin and the grave diggers shoveled the dusty dirt back into the hole.
Usually, the procession leads to the church for mass before going to the cemetery, but Jerry was not a religious man, and we really had no idea what kind of service he would have liked. A man read a few passages out of his Bible, the hole was filled, and people scattered like the wind. I think Jerry would have been proud of his send-off.
Death is so honest and real in Nicaragua. There are no pretenses, no offenses, and no expensive ceremonies. Nicaraguans are poor. Most cannot afford a metal coffin, so they bury their loved ones in a wooden box. I imagine that is the reason why no embalming is done. Bodies are tenderly washed and dressed by family members. Strangers pass by in the night to pay their respect. Heavy coffins are hoisted onto the backs of strong young men and gently lowered into hand-dug graves. Within twenty four emotional hours, the deceased is lovingly interred.
When no family is left behind, as in Jerry’s case, the Nicaraguans have no gender, race, or religious barriers. He was a member of the community. He deserved a vela, along with all the drunken mourners and sweet coffee they could find. What a fine vela it was. Jerry would definitely be proud.