Now for something completely different.
It’s so morbid and depressing to continually read about the trials and tribulations of Covid–19. So this week’s episode is going to concentrate on something far more positive and uplifting; funerals.
Three bodies and not a virus on site.
On my recent foray through Central America I was confronted with three different dead bodies. Admittedly they were all in coffins but all three were in various stages of public display – from non to total! During my working life I found myself in a few war zones and dead bodies were, by definition (war = some dead people), part of the landscape. Normally, however, we go through life only seeing a dead body, or a coffin at least, once every few years. So after coming across 3 in as few weeks I started to wonder.
Death in Paradise
The first body appeared, literally, in Punta Gorda, a lovely sleepy little town in southern Belize. I was staying in a hostel called “A Piece Of Ground,” – definitely the best hostel I found while in Belize (that’s one of those $$$ plugs I refer to in our Code of Misconduct). This was 2 kms out on the edge of town. The most direct route to the town was through the town cemetery. I was low on rum and cigarettes and was en-route to resupply when I met a funeral coming towards me.
At first I thought I’d accidentally gate crashed a film set. It was like a scene from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and I’m sure I unconsciously looked around for Clint Eastwood. There were groups of gossiping giggling women and clusters of men comically and surreptitiously drinking rum.
Stumbling off this mortal coil (apologies to Mr Shakespeare)
The primitive open top pine coffin was carried from the back of a grubby pick-up towards the grave. A dignified and solemn procession? Actually more like a lurching debacle as the cortege made its tortuous way to the grave. At one point the coffin teetered so close to falling the corpse’s arm flopped out. Attempting to regain some composure for the deceased one of the pallbearers had to break step. This nearly caused the whole troupe to collapse. Instead of gasps of shock there were peels of drunken laughter.
Finally the procession reached the graveside and everybody trooped past it offering their last respects with a raised glass of rum. Then somebody appeared with a hammer and nails. The lid was secured with varying degrees of success with the nail driving! The coffin was lowered into the grave and everybody simply faded away all in good spirits, pun intended.
From my vantage point I was trapped unless I wanted to make a huge detour to complete my purchases. But I also had the luxury of time and was perversely enjoying the spectacle. Although alluring I resisted the temptation to take photos – even I can be sensitive sometimes. My take away from this experience was this is how I want my funeral to be. The deceased was centre stage but everybody was having a great time, perfect.
The Shades of a Godfather
The second body appeared in Turrialba in Costa Rica. This is a misnomer, there was only a coffin and I can only assume there was a body inside. I like site-seeing nondescript towns away from the classic tourist fleshpots. Turrialba was no exception, it was seriously mundane. I love street art and I’d just taken a photo of a mural on some local government building when I noticed a huge crowd outside the main church and the bell started to toll mournfully.
Standing obliquely across from the church I was able to observe a whole other class of funeral. First, as the coffin emerged from the church lots of men in dark suits and sunglasses stopped all pedestrians and car traffic. Just to paint a picture, these did not look like men who belonged to the Turrialba knitting circle! These guys even stopped the police. And even though the traffic was now backing up there was complete silence. This was not out of respect but, I suspect, out of fear. In any normal traffic snarl up it would have been a cacophony of car horns. I’ve no idea who was in the coffin but it sure was somebody important and powerful.
If not an important person surely a big enchilada!
As the coffin was loaded into an enormous hearse, this time in ordered pomp and dignity, the flowers and wreaths appeared from the church in what seemed like truckloads. I must admit I’d never seen so much floral decoration. The local flower shops must have been wringing their hands in glee. This time also, but not out of altruistic sensitivity, I resisted the temptation to take photos of this gross macabre spectacle. This time it was more of a gut instinct for survival with all the “marshals” nervously scanning the onlookers each with one hand inside their jacket protecting the very important dead person!
When I returned to my hostel I made enquiries about the dead person. All I could garner about the corpse was that it was “a very important person.” Or “that of an extraordinary person.” No way could I illicit a name or their position in society. I couldn’t even establish if it was male or female! Most bizarre.
And my take away from this funeral? It was that of a very, very, very important person – probably dodgy, but then that’s me projecting.
A Lesson in Humility
As explained in another post, shortly after crossing into Nicaragua and wondering what to do about the Corona Virus I was in a lovely hostel in Rivas. The first morning I came down stairs and the first thing I saw was a sign advertising laundry. The second thing I saw was the owner sitting on the stairs clearly distressed. I gingerly enquired if she was OK and she explained that her father had died during the night.
Generous with fake obsequiousness and condolences my first thought was to wonder if he’d died from the virus. In my pathetic defence, in about 72 hours, I’d gone from total ignorance about the virus to a potential global expert. He’d died of old age at 85! My second thought was about the laundry. I asked the daughter if she could do it. Without batting an eyelid she told me to give it to her. She was more concerned if I would be OK with the body being in the hostel. I was not entirely sure what she was driving at so I headed out for coffee.
Reality kicks in or is that hits home?
Only when I was sitting with my coffee did my laundry faux pas hit me. I felt pretty bad. Weeks later I still questioned how I could’ve been so goddam crass to ask if my laundry could be done. But then I didn’t feel quite so bad when I realised I could write about it later!
Anyway, during my absence from the hostel the body of the deceased father had arrived. As I entered the lobby I found him lying resplendent in his best suit in an open top coffin. It was not just centre stage in the lobby, it dominated. Now I rapidly comprehended why the daughter was so concerned earlier. I didn’t mind the presence of the body it was the embarrassing spectacle I had to perform every time I wanted to enter and leave my room.
I had to pass down the side of the coffin with various assembled friends and relatives dressed de rigueur in their Sunday best. And I was most definitely not dressed de rigueur in my ragged shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Well I was dressed de rigueur BUT for the heat and humidity and certainly not for a lying in state. I didn’t so much as pass down the side of the coffin but rather slid down it taking infinite care not to step on any feet. I had to run this gauntlet several times; each time with several pairs of eyes drilling holes in the back of my head. I couldn’t even sneak-by at sunrise; the vigil by family and friends continued 24/7. It was relentless.
And a photo? To my shame I did consider a photo of the open top coffin with ‘dad’ in all his splendour. Especially when I could feel this story starting to form in my brain’s nether regions. I had opportunities to take a clandestine shot. But each time my innate cowardice kicked in.
And the laundry?
And the laundry? I did look for it in the vain hope that it had been forgotten about during all the grieving and I could possibly surreptitiously retrieve it together with some modicum of dignity. Alas, it had disappeared along with any semblance of decorum. Without wanting to compound my delinquency by asking for its location I slinked off to my room. En-route I spied my laundry flying in full splendour while drying on the neighbour’s washing line out of reach. However, some hidden sixth sense kicked in and I saw a potential disaster looming if I tried to spirit it away. I continued my retreat.
Two days later I discovered my laundry neatly folded on a chair next to the coffin. A normal occurrence during a wake or designed to add to my guilt? Either way I discreetly ferreted it away.
A most surreal situation, a farce.
And my take away from this funeral? Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.