A Funeral in Pachali

Lauriana said that we have to laugh or we might not make it. This came almost at the end of the drive back from Pachali, where we had attended the funeral of an indigenous woman—the mother of a former teacher at the orphanage where I volunteer. 

Lauriana’s statement made me smile as we wound down the road in the back of a pickup truck, crammed in with sixteen other funeral attendees. Most of the chatter in the pickup was in Kachicel, so I could not decipher the conversation, but I assumed that most of the laughter came from the rough road jarring our contorted bodies.

We had wound up the same road earlier that day in a jam-packed chicken bus heading out of Tecpan. The beauty of the views struck me as we rolled rather slowly up and down, traveling over the single lane of a rutted mountain road that was still badly damaged from the months of rain that had just ended. Three volcanoes loomed large as a backdrop to the landscape, which was mostly farmland. The condition of the road made me wonder how the crops that were flourishing in the fields would make it out to the local markets or to the boats for export. It was a very clear, sunny, warm day, and the recent rainy season had turned everything a lush green. 

As we arrived in the village we saw a small church perched on a hill. Its bell would ping later on to announce the procession of attendees who walked along the road to accompany the casket carried by a handful of men. The house of the deceased was already overflowing with people. There was a bustle of activity as women, dressed in a variety of colorful indigenous patterns, worked to feed the crowd that had assembled. Clay bowls filled with boiled vegetables and chicken were distributed, along with a pineapple punch. The deceased lay in her living room; her head, shrouded in a white shawl, could be seen through a small window 

The bowls were collected and brought to the pila to be washed by Lauriana and the other cooks and helpers, all friends of the deceased. Then we all watched as the coffin was lifted through the front door and brought into the yard, where the pallbearers braced to turn her in a circle three times so she could have a last look around from within the casket. A more strenuous task followed, as her sons and the other men who bore the coffin hoisted it up and down twice—allowing her yet another perspective as she said goodbye to her home and the surrounding landscape. Cries, wails and tears accompanied this virtual tour of her surroundings as the observers of her goodbye were left to imagine her home without her. The pallbearers who strained to give the deceased this opportunity did not linger, but started on the walk down the road towards the church once her turns and lifts were complete. 

On the walk along this road to the church, Lauriana could have said again that “we have to laugh or we won’t make it.” The condition of the road was tough for the bus and even worse for walking, yet the only available truck remained idle, parked at the house as we walked to the church. Grandsons struggled and sweated as they pushed the deceased’s husband, frail from a recent fall, along the way in a wheelchair. Once we were on the narrow road that descended to the cemetery, I understood why that truck was useless to convey the handicapped widower. 

It was quite warm in the church as the afternoon sun beat down through the open doors. The visitors and family who had watched over the unconscious woman through several nights, listening to her rattling breath, now slept through much of the service. If I had heard about the death on the night before the funeral, I too would have gone to her home, sharing coffee and bread and keeping vigil with the family, as her labored breath ceased and the morning journey to her hometown began. I too would have dozed throughout the sermon that praised the new journey this woman was taking in death. The recollection of this scene in the church made me wonder if she, too, felt like laughing or she might not make it. She was now moving on in unknown territory, and her shepherds were worn out by their efforts on her behalf. She likely joined me and others in a laugh as we surveyed the crowd, on which the deacon’s impassioned presentation had such a soporific effect.

Lauriana’s invocation of the remedy that laughter can provide was perhaps sub-consciously in the minds of those in the funeral procession, as they walked from the church perched on the hill down to the small but pretty cemetery tucked in between the cornfields and the red beet fields. There was no way down except that along the narrow, rutted road, filled with boulders of volcanic rock, and for many the walk was nearly impossible. Some even stayed behind. But the view was magnificent as the patchwork of crops stood out against the blue sky and the backdrop of the surrounding hills. It was a committed crowd that lined up for the final ceremony. 

 A man whom we had passed on the way to the church struggled on the path to the cemetery. Before the church service I had noticed that he stopped at someone’s yard for a hoe. He had a lasso-type rope wrapped around his upper arm and he walked with a crippled limp. I imagined that he was on his way to work and was simply caught up in our parade to the church, but when he passed me on the road to the cemetery, I realized that it was he who would lower the casket and bury the woman. 

The mourners stood inside the cemetery and along the fence outside as the final goodbyes were said. The crippled man wrapped the casket with the ropes and let it down into the ground, then covered it with the same rich volcanic soil that gave life to the corn and the red beets in the nearby fields.

 It was hard for me not to reflect on the sorrow of everyone there, as they mourned the death of their mother, grandmother, neighbor, and friend. Their patient participation in every aspect of this burial gave no hint of what I am sure was a nagging question in everyone’s mind: How would they get home from the funeral, with no vehicles of their own? As the sun set on the burial, even my small group of four immediately set to finding a ride back down the hill, as the chicken buses were done for the day.  

Yet in spite of the hour, everyone had stayed to watch as the dirt was thrown on the casket and the last shovelfuls covered the hole, and finally as the crippled man packed down the dirt by rolling a tree trunk attached to a pole. As this reverential and symbolic end to her life took place, I looked at the faces viewing this scene. When tears came to my eyes it was because I imagined that although this one life had ended, it continued scarcely changed for her companions. It seemed incredible to think about the complexities of underdevelopment that barely should have allowed this group to convene. Her death evoked in me what seemed a collective pain that should have been asking the world, “Why?”

It could have been rage instead of sorrow that they experienced when crying for this woman, who had most likely died from the dark spot on her lung. For years this woman prepared meals for her family in a cooking hut filled with smoke. The same fire was also used to boil water that would otherwise have been unsafe to drink. So, while she kept her family alive and safe from diarrhea, damage to her lungs guaranteed her own death. I saw the smoke-filled cooking huts, the poor roads, the accident or birth defect that caused the cripple’s limp, the lack of transportation, and poor water quality running down cheeks as the tears of sorrow of her family and friends. 

In fact, it was more likely a simpler sorrow, absent any rage about what contributed to her death. In the cemetery, children ran around the other mounds that contained caskets and played tag, and no one stopped to silence them. Life continued in the laughter of the children, and those who cried more likely cried for themselves, as many of us do, when we imagine life without the one who has died. 

We climbed up the hill from the cemetery with others and continued to wonder about the trip back to Tecpan as we reached the road. Someone’s ingenuity produced the pickup truck from out of the village and we climbed aboard for the trip back. As I off-boarded the back end of the pickup along with the tapestry-clad women and their families and we all paid our fare, our group began to disperse and head for other transport or the walk home. We laughed as we said good-bye; we had made it just as Lauriana had predicted we could if we had the right attitude. 

I later heard that some other attendees returned from the cemetery to the home of the deceased for more coffee and sweet bread. At the end of the meal before the service, small amounts of spirits had been distributed judiciously to elder friends and family members in the bottom of a styrofoam cup. Perhaps more spirits were shared that evening and again a spirit monitor passed out more cups with small amounts of white liquor. 

The letdown after the formalities of the afternoon likely produced more laughter in the crowd at the house. No matter where any of us spent the time after the funeral, we had made it and so had the deceased. Our laughter accompanied her on the journey she was taking, and I supposed that she would hope the survivors might live with fewer complications. Maybe in her passing she also asked “why” and she, too, felt that without laughter you just don’t make it. 


Email: hogares.guadalupe@focalskills.info | © Mary Pat Clasen 2012 | Sitemap