I went to my first Guatemalan funeral this past week.
My friend’s father was on the overnight bus between Santa Elena, Peten to Guatemala City. They were about halfway through the 12-hour trip when it started to rain. The bus hit a slick spot on the road, the driver lost control, and the bus rolled over. My friend’s father and several others were killed instantly, and numerous others were injured and taken to the hospital.
As fate would have it, the musically-talented young man who helps me in my yard (and that I chaperoned for), was also on the bus that night, coming from Guatemala City to Santa Elena, Peten. Since I didn’t know which direction the accident bus was traveling, I immediately texted his father to make sure his son was okay, and was very relieved to hear that he was. But his father then went on to say, “One of our neighbors died in the accident and we are very sad.”
It turns out that my friend’s father and my other friend’s neighbor was the same person.
In Guatemala, they typically do not embalm the deceased, and instead, have the wake and funeral within a day of the death. Both are held in the home of the deceased.
The wake started at about 11 p.m. that night, when the body of the man arrived back into his village, and ended about 6 a.m. the next morning. The coffin was placed in the center of the outdoor living space, and family members sat nearby, receiving condolences from people.
There were easily 800 people at the wake. When the morning came, people went home and prepared for the funeral that afternoon. While there were fewer people at the funeral (because of work schedules, etc.), the guests were well over 600. As I drove to the house, I noticed that almost every small store in town was closed. The entire town turned out for the funeral.
The funeral mass was held at the home of the deceased, and then we all walked together to the cemetery, which was a little over a mile away. The main street through town was closed because of the throngs of people. School children were released from school and joined the walk in their school uniforms. Young people, old people, people who were financially comfortable, people who were destitute, people from different churches: all were there.
All the able-bodied men lined up to help carry the coffin, patiently waiting to “spell” the men who were the first round of pallbearers. I found out later that carrying the coffin of the deceased is one way to show respect to the deceased and let the surviving family know that they will help them carry their burdens going forward. From my viewpoint from where I was walking, it didn’t appear that any one pallbearer carried the coffin for more than just a few minutes of the slow, mile-long walk because of the many men who were waiting for their turn.
I asked one of my friends what would happen to the widow. She was mother to six children. While most were young adults, the youngest was maybe about 10 years old. She, like many of her generation of women in rural Guatemala, was a homemaker without a formal education, and didn’t have a job outside of the house. He told me that the siblings and adult children of the widow would help her out financially, as would people in the town.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the word “neighbor” as I walked to the cemetery carrying one of the grandchildren of the deceased man. Every person in this small town – and a number of people from other towns – viewed this man as his or her neighbor. Each saw the widow’s pain as his or her own, and each stepped up to help as best he or she could.
“Neighbor” here in these small Guatemalan towns means any other human being who lives in the general area. Since a number of people here don’t travel long distances, this means that they see everyone in their world as their neighbor. That includes gringas like me. And while I don’t want to romanticize the people here – like everywhere else in the world, there are people here who are abusive, petty, mean, addicted and/or criminals – there is something inherently right and evolved about seeing the connection between all people. In fact, in the Mayan dialect, when greeting another person, whether an old friend or a brand new acquaintance, they say, “In you I see another me.”
I think many of us define “neighbor” more narrowly. Our neighbors are, perhaps, the people whose physical homes are near ours, or maybe are the people we call family or friends. Our religion may tell us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” or something along those lines, but we may not put it into practice with everyone we meet.
I think the Guatemalans do it better.
When was the last time you showed compassion and connection to a homeless person? Or reached out lovingly to a stranger who was the complete opposite of you in terms of social status or religion or some other way? When was the last time you looked at the people on the train or bus of your morning commute and thought, “In you I see another me?” Who are your neighbors?
The man whose funeral I attended this week was a good man, but he was by no means famous or wealthy. He offered only the goodness of his soul to the people in the community who wholeheartedly embraced, accepted, and, this week, mourned him.
The world is a far more beautiful place because of the connection we each have with every other person on this planet…each one, one of our neighbors.