I was at the elementary school about to leave when I heard that the father of one of my teacher training group participants had passed away that same day. I had to make a quick decision: go home as planned or go to the home of the father of one of the teachers I knew least to be present. I decided to go be present.
In the States when someone passes, the family notifies everyone, close acquaintances go to the family’s home and help cook and clean and make arrangements, and in about a week they have a wake and then a funeral and burial. In the DR, people don’t really embalm, so death comes quickly and so must the mourners mourn. The general tradition—although they vary—is to notify everyone quickly, have them over the house where they cumplir (a word that means “to complete” or “to fulfill,” as in to fulfill a requirement) with the family of the deceased. Within a day (or two max) of the death, the family buries the loved one. After nine days, there’s another gathering at the house to remember the person. Some say for Catholics, the family is supposed to pray for the sins of the person so their place in heaven is secured. For up to three years after the death, close family of the dead don’t wear bright colors to show that they are in luto (mourning). They usually start out with grays and blacks, and then go to dark blues, and after the three years will return to reds and yellows and anything else.
We got into the car, the five of us: three teachers, a secretary and me. We found the house and walked up to seven or so people sitting in plastic chairs on the grassy patch between homes. I saw one of my teachers, Pedro. “Do I smile brightly and wave like I normally do?” I thought to myself. We made eye contact and both of us gave half smiles that forced the corners of our mouths to not express the usual amount of happiness due to respect for the occasion, or better said, the family. The five of us proceeded into the living room where 10 others—possibly family friends who were not crying—sat around a white coffin housing the newly deceased man’s body. He looked older than I expected. Maybe 89 or 90. Where was my teacher? We entered into the room on the right that seemed to have been prepared with only folding chairs especially for this moment. Only my teacher, her mother, and perhaps sisters were in this room, and they greeted us with loud sobs. “¡Se me fue mi viejo!” (My old man has left me!) one of the presumed sisters said over and over through her sobs. Others just wailed. No words, only loud emotion pouring into the warm air. I noticed that I was void of any particular emotion, perhaps not knowing how to be for them.
I first leaned down to kiss the oldest woman on the cheek. She hadn’t bothered to stand for us. “I don’t blame her,” I thought. She must have stood for 20 people by now. I saw my teacher next. She was visibly disheartened at the loss of her father, but contained her emotion. The other two who wailed took turns hugging those who entered before me. When it was my turn to hug them, their wailing blocked their view of me and they hugged each other instead. I didn’t force my condolences on them, but left out behind the others. We passed the box to view the body a little more closely, and then took our seats on the lawn with the several others. I sat beside Pedro. Ten minutes went by without anything being expressed other than awkward fidgets and the crows of roosters. I shuffled through several passing irrelevant thoughts in my head: “Why do people say they like country air? It only smells of different types of manure. I wonder how many chickens are in that chicken house. Those cacao pods are awfully dry. I looked above me to an orange tree with only green fruit. “Orange is a misleading name for the fruit; they’re all green.”
The arrival of more guests brought my thoughts back to why I was there. When they entered the house, the sobs began again from the room to the right. “¡Se me fue mi viejo!” I heard once again over and over. As the guests left the room, so did the cries. I figured the family felt obliged to express their grief to demonstrate how much they loved the one they’d just lost. That made me think of Lazarus’s death, when the guests mistook Jesus’ crying for mourning Lazarus and said, “See how he loved him.” I became accustomed to knowing what to expect each time new guests came.
I guess Dominicans don’t notice the difference, but to me, it seems it would hurt more to have only a day to process a death before having to burry a loved one. With all the wailing, I also thought of the verse that says that we don’t mourn as the world does because of the Hope within us. That’s not to say that we don’t mourn, or even ache intensely because of our loss, but we can do so with a peace afterwards that the one who knew Jesus is in the presence of the King. Death/loss/grief is not something easy, but thank God for the Hope of Glory.