Visiting or living in another country it is always interesting to observe the culture and traditions. These traditions are usually strongest regarding important life events (ie. weddings, funerals).
Unfortunately, I have gotten to witness firsthand the traditions regarding the death of a loved one here in Nicaragua. I had been to one funeral here before but it was of the grandma of an acquantaince so I just went to the funeral mass. Sadly, yesterday there was a death here that literally hit much closer to home. My neighbor, David, 35 yrs old, died suddenly of a heart attack in the middle of the night.
David had been Mr. Fix-It in my house, helping me get everything in order when I moved in and helping me with anything from a broken toliet to a falty light switch. His wife, I have always considered my ¨mom¨ of the neighborhood who can help me answer questions such as ¨How get out ______ stain¨ and always brings me extras of the food she makes. Two of David´s kids are my best friends from the neighborhood whom I have gone to play baseball, go running or just hang out in the hammocks in my house. Anyways, needless to say, I consider them a great family and this was a devastating blow to them.
In Nicaragua, from the time a person dies, the body is not to be left alone, and typically should always be with the family. For this reason, the night immediately after the death, the family has a vela in their home. This is very similar to a wake but with a few important differences. The family rents plastic chairs by the hundreds (businesses that rent plastic chairs for all types of events are plentiful) and puts them in front of their house. Around 7, or dusk, people start to show up to accompany the family. The body is in an open casket in the front room of the family house and as people show up they give their condolescences to the family and pray at the body. It is customary that the people coming to visit the family will give them bread or coffee grains. This is because the family is expected to make coffee and give a piece of bread to all of the guests throughout the night. The main difference between a vela and a wake is that the vela doesnt end until the sunrises the next day. Although, this is not to say that everyone stays that long. The closer you are to the family, or person that died, the longer you would stay.
There is an exception to this rule. Homeless drunks are prevalent in Nicaragua. The drunks show up for the free bread and coffee and end up staying the whole night drinking. It is considered very acceptable to drink alcohol at the vela. The idea of the vela is to accompany the family at all costs, so neighborhood teenagers will set up a table and play cards all night. Although an American might consider drinking and playing cards at a wake very offensive, it is not offensive here and it is very much a part of the vela. I said to a woman that I was at the vela with, ¨Its great that there are so many people here to support the family, but I really dont like that the drunks show up, to me its a lack of respect to the family¨, the woman looked at me a bit funny as if she had never imagined the concept of a vela without drunks. She responded ¨The drunks are needed because they lighten the mood a little bit and they make sure that the family is accompanied until the sunrises¨. I guess the drunks do serve a purpose in town...
I stayed at the vela until about 2am which seemed to me like an appropriate time for a close neighbor who had a 8am meeting the next day. There are all sorts of interesting beliefs associated with the vela, the family has to be with the body all night so that bad spirits don´t prevent the soul from reaching heaven. Also, (with varying degrees of who believes this 100%) it is considered dangerous for anyone who is pregnant or with an unhealed cut to go to a vela. This is because the body emits something that if it enters a living body through a cut can kill them. Generally, people with cuts have to cover them, and pregnant women either stay away or cover their stomach in a sheet.
The vela ends at sunrise and then the preparations for the funeral begin. In the case of David´s funeral, it was at 2pm. Friends and family meet at the family´s house a half hour before the mass and then there is a procession carrying the body to the church. After the mass, there is another procession through town that ends at the bus stop. At the bus stop, the family will have rented 3 or 4 buses to take all the people to the cementery (in the case of Corinto, since it is a fairly small island, the cementery is on the mainland, about a 10 min drive away). At the gravesite, a close family member nails the coffin shut which is generally very emotional, and then close male family members lower the casket into the hole with rope and take turns with a shovel filling in the hole. Also very emotional.
Anyways, that is the typical funeral here in Corinto. I think in bigger cities here there might be traditions closer to U.S. style. For those of you that are religious, pray for David´s family, they will have a rough time emotionally and making ends meet for a while.
What is interesting about living in a different country/culture, is that on the surface things are very different, but being there with the family at this funeral, you realize that all humans have the exact same feelings and emotions.