One of the greatest misconceptions about Peace Corps is that it is for the adventurous backpacker type who wants to travel around a new country for two years. Yes we do get two vacation days a month, but this stereotype couldn´t be further from the truth. Peace Corps is about moving to a new country and successfully integrating into a new community by living there. Actually living there. Finding friends, working, grocery shopping, celebrating birthdays, weddings, town fiestas and even funerals. Death is a part of life no matter where you live in the world, and during my time in Peru I have attended numerous funerals.
The Cultural Fact Friday post today is dedicated to those sweet souls whose funerals I´ve had the opportunity to attend in Peru and the families who consider me one of their own.
By the way, this post will not be full of photos like the others, because it is considered disrespectful to take photos at funerals. (I have included some pictures of various cathedrals in Peru instead!)
Over the years I have attended some beautiful funerals, and the oldest deceased was 104 years old! Peruvian campo work is obviously good for the soul and body. My favorite part about the funeral customs in Peru is the fact that the living relatives continue celebrating the life of the deceased for years!
When a love one passes away in Peru the body of the deceased is immediately dressed and placed in an open casket. The entire family and extended family is notified and a “velatorio” is scheduled. A velatorio is when the casket is kept in the family home or a church hall for two to three days and all day people from the community stop by with flowers or food and accompany the family and the deceased. In general the mood during these days is not full on mourning, rather more of a family gathering to talk about the memories each person has with the deceased.
The family also cooks the entire day for the guests who come to pay their condolences. Upon entrance to the velatorio every guest is given coffee or tea with small sandwiches or cookies. Depending on the financial situation of the family, sometimes lunch or dinner is prepared for the guests who are still present during those times. To give you an idea, anywhere from 100-300 people will pass through each day to express their condolences.
Close family members will even bring mattresses to sleep near the casket, making sure their deceased loved one is never alone.
On the third day there is a Catholic mass held in honor of the deceased and the cathedral will be full of photos of the deceased and their family. On this day everyone wears black and thoughts are given by family members. Each person leaves the mass with a small gift, usually a framed picture or a bookmark or a button with a photo of the deceased. The most ironic gift I´ve seen was a key chain bottle opener with a photo of the deceased giving a thumbs up!
After the mass the customs differ a little between a big city and a small town. In a city the casket is placed into a funeral car and the car is adorned with flowers, then the entire mass of people who attended the church service follow the car, walking for a few blocks. Then everyone gets in their own cars and drives to the cemetery.
In a small town the casket is adorned with flowers and carried by the men in the family from the cathedral to the town cemetery. A small marching band leads the procession and the entire community follows behind the casket. On this day everyone wears black.
Once in the cemetery there is a short service and the deceased is either placed in the ground or into a mausoleum type structure. This part of the tradition is casi igual to that of the United States.
After the funeral is over everyone in attendance returns to the family´s house where they are served a big lunch or dinner by the family. In my town the traditional meal is baby goat with yucca and rice. Coffee is also served, and usually there is a toast to the deceased with little cups of house wine. Once again guests will be given a small “recuerdo” or gift and then everyone returns home.
The big pictures of the deceased that were used during the mass are then hung in the living room of the family home for all future generations to remember their ancestors.
Every Sunday the immediate family will visit the grave site of their deceased relative and bring fresh flowers.
Immediately some family members also vow that for a year they will not party or dance because they are in grieving for their deceased. They take this very seriously, and I have even known people who were about to finish a year of mourning and then another family member passed away so they had to start over!
At the one month, six months, and one year anniversaries of the death date of the deceased the family holds a mass in honor of their loved one. After each of these masses all those in attendance (which is usually the entire community in a small town) are invited back to the family´s house where they are served either a meal or coffee and cookies, depending on the financial situation of the family. Then in some cases there is an all-night party held in honor of the deceased. Beer or wine will be passed around all night while family and friends remember their loved one.
Some families continue to visit the grave of their deceased each week and others bring flowers and visit only on holidays or birthdays. The biggest holiday to celebrate the lives of the deceased is Dia de los Muertos, which is celebrated on November 1st each year.
The Peruvian funeral traditions are focused more on remembering the lives of the deceased and celebrating the legacy they left on this Earth!
What are the funeral customs like in your host country? Are there any similarities or differences to those in Peru? I´d love to hear about it in the comments below!