June 10, 1996
Wednesday Cecilio said he was going to a wake for his uncle who had died that morning, and he left work at 4 p.m. We didn’t expect him to show up the next day.
The following morning he came about 10:30 and stood outside the locked gate to the co-op. I went to get the key and he motioned for me to come out. Without saying a word, he took my hand and we started walking. I didn’t know what was happening. We came to a house that had rows of chairs on the front “porch” and a row of chairs lined up across the street.
“Vela para mi tio,” Cecilio said. (Wake for my uncle.) He motioned for me to go in. There was a 24-inch high step I looked at in dismay, but he guided me up it. He introduced me to his grandmother and a couple of uncles. I shook hands. Then to his aunt and because I didn’t know what to say, I hugged her, then his mother. Met sisters, cousins, etc., all this on the front porch. Then he took my hand and we went in to see his uncle.
The casket was blue painted wood, simple, with a glass viewing section over the head. There was a 24-inch floor-standing fan directed at the casket. The body wasn’t embalmed, and he had cotton stuffed in his nose, ears and mouth. I sat on an indicated chair and waited. I was brought a tall glass mug with lots of ice and something faintly alcoholic. I took 1 ˝ hours to drink it, remembering that 24-inch step.
Gradually people came in, including friends of Tio who knew a few words of English, so we tried talking. Cecilio’s cousin was sobbing over his father, and Cecilio was crying softly. Then he opened the full lid of the casket and motioned for me to come.
There was this skinny man in a skinny casket with no padding but a small pillow for his head. He wore a shirt, very worn, and the rest of his body was covered with a sheet, no indication of other clothing. His hair was lifted in the breeze from the fan as Cecilio took a crucifix from around his neck and put it on his uncle’s, caressing the uncle lovingly as he did it. He closed the lid.
Several times Cecilio went back, opened the lid and caressed his uncle. All this with no talking. Sometime after noon he walked me back to the co-op and left. Interment was to be at 3:15.
At a quarter to 3 Cecilio came and motioned for me to come. I came. I wasn’t sure why I was included. By this time, there were three rows of chairs across the street, all full and more being set out. The only flowers were three large jars jam-packed with lovely tropical blooms from someone’s yard.
I’d seen, from the bus, funeral processions where men carried the casket on their shoulders while the family and friends walked behind, but this time the cemetery was too far from the house for that, so the casket would go in the back of a pickup truck.
When the men came (brothers and friends) to take the casket, Cecilio said, “No!” and opened the casket and hugged his uncle. It took several people and lots of talking to get him to let them close the lid. But he wouldn’t let them take the casket. He hung onto one of the handles and cried over and over, “No quiero entierro! No quiero entierro!” (I don’t want him buried!) All the family tried talking to him but he wouldn’t let go. They started prying his fingers loose and, tears streaming down his face, he called out, “Elena, Elena, no quiero entierro!”
I didn’t want to step into a family affair, but I tried, saying only, “Cecilio, es parte de vida.” (It’s a part of life.) He let go only when the casket was nearly dumped off its stand.
The casket was loaded onto the four-door pickup and Cecilio insisted I should ride in the back seat with his grandmother. In the end, I was glad for that. The procession, by now quite large, started out the long way to the cemetery, the pickup going two or three miles per hour. I can’t walk that slowly.
The grave had been dug by relatives and had two ropes across it for the lowering of the casket. Around the hole were piles of dirt with pieces of flat board scattered throughout. They hadn’t fastened the lid to the coffin, and there by the grave once again Cecilio opened it and embraced his uncle. He’d look at the hole and cry, “No! No!” and pound the earth with his fist. The family remonstrated with him but he wouldn’t let go. Then his grandmother and aunt motioned for me to go to him, so I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did get his hand and he did finally come. The casket was lowered and people took up handfuls of earth they threw in on it, then four men shoveled the dirt and the pieces of flat board into the hole.
The cemetery is an old one, and the graves are packed close together. The earth that had been removed from the grave was piled atop surrounding graves. When the grave was almost filled in, Cecilio picked up a concrete cross marker, painted blue, and put it in place while dirt was packed around it to keep it upright. Then I realized the significance of the boards in the dirt: Two other men had been buried in that hole, one in 1970 and one in 1990. No embalming (there was no evidence while I was there of any professional undertaker or any churchman participating in the funeral), heavy rains, tropical temperatures make re-use of a family plot possible.
We walked back to the co-op, Cecilio and I. It wasn’t as far going directly, not the roundabout way going down.
I felt I’d really had a day.
On to the