Human Interest

The small-town cemetery where Mexicans bury their dead with their own hands

By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla

Mexico City, Aug 17 (efe-epa).- There is a Mexico that is not renouncing its traditions despite the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the Mexico of Juan, who died at age 52 of Covid-19 and his relatives bade farewell to him as they have always done with deceased family members: they held his wake at home, carried his coffin through the town and buried him with their own hands.

The city hall at Tlahuac, in southeastern Mexico City, administers six old villages where ancient customs still define the day to day existence of the residents and the official protocols established due to the health crisis can do little to alter them.

Although the San Pedro Cemetery in Tlahuac has been closed to the public for months, lavish funerals are still being held there.

And Mexico has a peculiar and historical relationship with death to the point where funerals are transformed into parties with a somewhat strange mixture of music, tequila and laments.

At mid-morning, Demetrio arrived at the cemetery jammed with gravestones facing every which way. His red eyes and tipsy walk revealed that he had not had an easy night. His brother Juan had died that morning.

Although the funeral was scheduled for the afternoon, there was much work to do beforehand.

“All the cemeteries in the district are neighborhood cemeteries. … The majority of the services are performed by the relatives themselves. If someone dies, they agree to clean out the tomb where the body will be buried,” Daniel de la Cruz, the Tlahuac cemetery manager, told EFE, noting that burials have tripled during the pandemic.

After Demetrio arrived, the other men in the family drifted in, most of them nephews of the deceased, to make the family gravesite ready for Juan’s burial in a few hours.

A dozen or so nephews cleaned the grandmother’s tomb, a tough job taking some four hours that included removing the gravestone, removing her coffin and putting her bones and clothing in a plastic bag, thus leaving room for Juan, the latest family member to pass away.

“When there’s money, you pay for a cemetery worker, but here we know how to do it and we do all this work ourselves,” said Javier, one of the cousins who stopped his work for a while to serve beer to all his relatives.

A cumbia played on the cemetery’s loudspeaker, and bottles of beer and tequila accompanied the floral offerings on some of the tombstones in the area.

Uncle Juan died without leaving any children, but his nephews loved him like a father and were planning a big party for his birthday next January.

While the men clean out the tomb between beers, the sobs of Juan’s wife, sister and other women in the family can be heard at his house, which is not very far from the burial site.

Mexican authorities have asked people not to hold wakes for the dead due to the coronavirus, which has made Mexico the country with the third-highest number of deaths, but skipping over the ritual is something unthinkable for many families in Tlahuac who are accustomed to keeping the deceased with them for a number of hours before the burial is conducted.

Thus, the doors of the home open as neighbors and friends arrive to pay their last respects to Juan, whose coffin rests on an altar on the patio.

The health crisis has added just one detail, besides the wearing of facemasks: the coffin was wrapped in plastic at the hospital as per the pandemic health protocols to prevent the family from opening it.

The family complied, but disbelief is widespread regarding the coronavirus crisis in many parts of the country.

“My uncle didn’t want to go to the hospital … They said he had Covid but nobody showed us (any proof),” said Javier resignedly.

At 3:30 pm, the relatives of the deceased returned to his house. The tomb was ready and the funeral proceedings could begin.

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