Guest Author - Rebecca M. Cuevas De Caissie
In approaching this topic as well as any in this forum, I think it needs to be stated that “Hispanic Culture” is a catchall phrase for a collective group of people living in a foreign, though some are born within these boarders, land that are diverse and unique. The term Hispanic does not define the individual races and nationalities that co-exist and share this title. I say this to the end that this article like so many I have written are an introduction into the collective mindset though no one article can describe in the finest details the intricacies of the individual societies that have a distinct and independent history, culture and tradition independent of the collective. Having said this we begin the exploration of Hispanic Traditions concerning funerals and death within the Hispanic Culture.
To begin understanding Hispanic Traditions of funerals, one first must understand the life and mind set of Hispanics in general. Death is not something the majority of Hispanics fear. In fact, in many of the nationalities it is even embraced and celebrated.
Hispanics for the most part are Catholic and the roots of Catholicism run so deep that many Hispanics who are not “Catholic” anymore still carry some of the traditions and mannerisms that are “Catholic” indeed. It is also prudent to understand that just as with any event in the Hispanic family, funerals are a family event and everyone takes part and is considered regardless of the religion. Therefore, this is an article of the general details of a funeral in the Hispanic Culture.
When someone is known to be on their death bed is when the proceedings begin. As with all Catholics, there is the communion of last rights. The act of last rights is also known as Viaticum, from the Greek custom of giving someone setting out on a journey a supper. This act was called hodoiporion. Ephodion was the act of providing the traveler with all the items needed for the journey. The adjectival equivalent in Latin of both these words is viaticus. Through a study of Catholic Faith, you will see how this tradition developed from a very modest act able to be performed by anyone to that, which was solely the act of the clergymen.
Last rights include the anointing of the sick, hearing the confession of the dying, absolution, prayers, Communion and a blessing. When one is of a different faith outside of the Catholic religion, the dying will usually request a visit from the clergyman of his faith, which has the echoes of the Catholic Faith. When one is dying, there is usually a person with the ill until the end to make sure they do not die alone. This is very important to the one who is dying and those who are members of the family that when one is dying that they have someone with them until the end. The loyalty and care that the ill within the Hispanic Culture receives is second to none. The pride in caring for our own is beautifully shown in the last moments of ones life when you receive the love, protection and care that your Hispanic Family renders to you in those few precious moments.
When the loved one has departed, a family member will usually elect to stay with the body in most Hispanic Cultures to keep them company and to make sure they receive the treatment they should receive. The body is prepared for burial and a wake will be held. If you do not know what a wake is, it is when the family sits with the body until the burial to keep them company, offer prayers and to watch over the body. In the Hispanic Culture, a wake is a very social event. It gathers the family and is for he most part a time to remember the good times and to laugh and enjoy seeing family again. Some play cards or dominos, sit and talk of good times and everything under the sun. Usually there is food served and drinks as everyone gathers enjoying the company of close family and friends. Prayers are very common and the Novena is the most commonplace prayer at a wake. Usually a Rosario is said for nine days following the death of a loved one, then once on the anniversary of the day of their death. Candles and flowers play a very important part of the funeral, as well as the wake, and are used to decorate the burial grounds of the loved one.
The funeral is set to follow the wake. This is a time when Hispanics prepare to say goodbye to their loved one. The body has been prepared for burial, last thoughts are spoken, and goodbyes are said. Usually a priest, or clergyman if the person was not Catholic, will preside over the ceremony. Many times personal items will be laid into the casket with the person who has passed away for their journey in the after life as well as a final gift from those who will be left in this world.
Then follows the burial, which is the choice of the majority of Hispanics as opposed to cremation. Where a great difference lies is in the place in which some Hispanics wish to be buried. In the Mexican Culture as well as many Central American Cultures, they believe that there are days when the dead return to walk amongst us. As family members, we go out to meet them and share that day with them. In other Hispanic Cultures, they believe that the dead will rise again and are “sleeping” in wait of that day. To this end, many Hispanics wish to be returned to their homelands to be buried with other members of the family to keep company with while they are in repose.
The burial in many Hispanic Cultures is the beginning of a new phase in life and the beginning of a new phase of freedom and strength in which they can help those who are still alive. All Hispanics visit the dead and tend to their gravesite as an act of love. Hispanics, for the most part, believe that their loved ones bodies have died but their spirits live on in the spirit world. They pray to them, talk to them and turn to them for guidance and support knowing they are always there watching and caring for us as we did for them when they were living.
Following the burial there is yet again another social gathering. A supper and reception usually follows the burial where family comes together again to eat, laugh and comfort those who need it as well as remembering the one who is now gone on before us to the spirit world.
Hispanics believe that not even death can remove the love and care a family has for each other. Family is forever, love overcomes all. Death is a natural state and phase in life that we all must endure. To endure it with love, respect and dignity are a gift that only a family can give you. To be gently ushered into the afterlife on the prayers and love of your family, knowing you will always be remembered and thought of, welcomed home and cherished even after you are no longer of this world is a strengthening power that allows you to face life with a new vision. A funeral is just one more act, a final act of love and devotion, family gathering in shared affection. In the Hispanic Culture, as with any family event, a funeral is a big event filled with family, laughter, food, friends and love because in the end, if you don’t have family, what do you have?
Family, in the end, for Hispanic Culture, it is the one thing you get to take with you when you die.