Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 29, 2004
Mayan blouses show their faith
Ancient custom of burying items for the dead's afterlife use validates people's belief
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
At 8:30 a.m. last Sunday I celebrated the Holy Eucharist in Chicaman, a community of some 2,000 people and the centre of this vast parish of 67 scattered communities.
After the celebration, an elderly Maya man came over and told me that his son had died the day before. He asked if I would come to his house to pray. I left everything and went with him.
As we left town, he started out on a sharp incline and kept on climbing without a pause until he got to his home half an hour later. I thought he was in good shape as I struggled to keep up with him.
Dignity in poverty
We entered his house which was quite dark with just a couple of small windows on one side. The walls were made of mud and the roof was typical rusted tin.
The man offered me one of the two chairs in the house. There was a bed in a corner. Three or four mats made of intertwined weeds lay on the uneven dirt flour. A young man was lying on one of the mats. That was all the furniture in the house. Then I noticed the closed casket in the far corner.
After a while I became aware of a strange odour. I soon realized that the smell came from the coffin which was the main reason why it was closed. It reminded me of the Gospel reference to Lazarus, Jesus' friend who had died. Martha, Lazarus' sister did not want Jesus to do anything because already "he smelled bad," she told him (John 11:39).
In the West we have refined the job of embalming to an art. Here, in Guatemala, embalming seemingly has never been heard of, at least in these smaller and very poor communities.
Before I left the house it was understood that the family would bring the coffin to the church at 2 p.m., so that we might celebrate Mass or at least have a prayer service. Then we'd go the cemetery and I would bless the grave.
Well, I was not too surprised when at 2 p.m. no one showed up at church. Life does not follow a clock I learned a long time ago: it has its own rhythm and one needs to learn to flow with it. At 4 p.m., a young man came in the church and asked me to please ring the bell as his wife was going to be buried in the graveyard shortly.
I got confused. Did two people die or just the son? "No, the young man told me, 'My wife who is the old man's daughter is the only one that died.'" The confusion was because the elderly gentleman had told me that his "hijo" had died. That word means "son," I knew, while "hija" means daughter. I quickly checked my dictionary that indicated that "hijo" can also mean "child." Ah! the subtlety of languages!
"Let's ring the bells," I said. Being new in the church, I started looking for the bell and the rope to ring it with. We looked in the church and outside the church: no bell! "Let's go to the graveyard, I suggested, since people are waiting there." They were obviously disappointed. There is a bell, the priests told me, but it's not easy to find.
We got to the graveyard where people were waiting with the coffin in a congested area. There is no order or planning at all in this graveyard, it's all haphazard. I said the prayers and turned things over to the family. They opened the coffin. The deceased was covered with a white sheet.
Then began a long ceremony where beautiful and costly traditional skirts and awesome colourful blouses were piled by the mother on and all around the body of her daughter while copious tears were shed by many.
Pots and pans too
The father and other members of the family joined in and dickered with each other as to which of her culinary instruments should be placed where. Pots, pans, cups, forks and knives were moved around and each eventually were given their place of rest.
People lingered a while longer: then eventually they began to leave. I left with them and went home to the rectory, having learned more about my new parish and its remarkable people.
Remarkable in the fact that through their rituals of placing valuable objects and symbols with the deceased, in their own way they were professing a belief in the resurrection and eternal life.
As they put her body away for good, they were at the same time proclaiming strongly that she was alive in the great beyond, and that she would need and use these dresses and blouses and culinary instruments. She would continue to exist, to relate with people and share with them the fruit of her work and love.
Once a people has tasted the Creator's gift of life, that gift is not going be taken away. No, not even by death itself.
Handel, your Alleluia Chorus celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord and his victory over death will likely never be equalled. But these little people from up the hill sure gave it a great shot. Even without the bell.
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