The bus driven by a church elder and presbytery treasurer picked me up at 6 p.m. What should have been an hour-long drive took nearly three, fighting the traffic past three shopping malls during Christmas shopping season. (Black Friday sales have been one unfortunate export from the United States to Central America.) We picked up pastors and church elders along the two-lane highway out of town, where capital city hillsides blanketed with adobe and block houses stacked three high gave way to cattle grazing and pine-forest sawmills. We were on our way to Guaimaca, home of the first Presbyterian church of Honduras, named Bethel, to a velorio, or wake, for the wife of the pastor. She had died earlier that afternoon.
Hers was not the first funeral I had attended in Honduras. The first was on Easter Sunday of 2018. The mother of the presbytery moderator had died the day before. The family had already gathered, as holy week is a vacation holiday for most Hondurans. The Catholic sister giving the homily at the Easter mass deftly interwove the message of the Resurrection with the message of resurrection that all Christians hope for in death. Then the coffin was carried in the presbytery moderator’s pickup truck from the Catholic church to the cemetery, where the protestant family members said their piece.
The second was for the brother of a pastor. Again the family had gathered for a 24-hour vigil, with burial to take place the following day. I showed up in the last hour, joining the procession of cars from the funeral home to the cemetery, transporting a group of kids who had been up all night watching their parents mourn.
The third was also for the wife of a pastor. I traveled with several pastors from the city to the rural mountaintop town, joining the family at the church, and giving the homily, then walking the mile to the cemetery, watching from afar as the family buried their matriarch.
Now, in the first week of Advent, my fourth Honduran funeral, the second to occur during a major religious holiday. As we drove out of town, I watched all the shopping mall traffic from the bus window. I thought back to that Easter Sunday service a year-and-a-half prior.
When I was a hospice and hospital chaplain in the United States, I counseled many families and patients on how to plan for their funerals. Many times I heard the request, “I don’t want a lot of fuss. No service. No big to-do. Just put me in the ground.” I also had patients who had pre-written their own obituaries, pre-paid their funerals, kept up-to-date portraits that were just realistic enough and just flattering enough to look appropriate at the funeral. I had a Mexican-American patient once who joked that instead of paying to transport her body back to Mexico, her family should just prop her up with sunglasses and a drink in the passenger seat of their car, Weekend at Bernie’s-style.
I wonder how some of those patients might have reacted to an unplanned Easter Sunday funeral mass. I thought of some of my own family members, my grandfather, for example, whose ashes spent about five years in a box in my grandmother’s closet before he was buried. There was a funeral at the Nebraska church he pastored, I think, but I was young and don’t remember it. I was old enough to remember the trip we took to his burial in the middle of the Arizona desert. Cousins who had never known my grandfather had joined the family by then. It was during summer, when everyone was out of school, I’m sure, and it was convenient to gather the family in the middle of the Arizona desert.
Actually, I have more than one family member whose cremated remains are in boxes in their next-of-kin’s cupboards, awaiting the right time, or the right gathering, or the right feelings. This fact was rather shocking for my Honduran friends when I told them.
As we drove up to the church in Guaimaca, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that the church was celebrating a posada, the Catholic pageant enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for room at the inn in Bethlehem. A giant tent had been set up at the church entrance. Chairs lined the walls of the sanctuary and overflowed into the street under the tent. People came and went freely, paying their respects to various family members and friends. Seemingly out of thin air but actually from the mourning family’s next-door kitchen, small plates of chicken and rice were produced. Even though I politely declined—I had already eaten dinner—my refusal was politely declined; I ate. Trays of coffee, soda, and sweet bread were passed around. Dozens, maybe hundreds, were served that night. We ate chicken, with the open casket, the 50-year-old portrait of the church matriarch on a table surrounded by offerings of bouquets and wreaths of flowers.
This is just how it’s done in Honduras. No matter when a person dies, the family comes, the friends gather, the velorio takes 24 hours, or 48 if the family members are especially far away, or especially wealthy. Then they are buried. Easter Sunday or not. In the middle of the Christmas season or not.
In a way, this is a result of a culture that is less inclined to strict and detailed planning, complicated liturgical calendars, the written word. This culture is oral, in the moment. My U.S. culture is on one hand rather more rigid and documented, but on the other hand, rather lacking in knowing just how to do things when the time comes. At Ursula’s velorio, there were no grand speeches, no liturgy, no hymns. The simple funeral service would have been spare. Prayers, songs, a homily, and more prayer, then food.
I didn’t know Ursula well. I met her a handful of times in the past two years, and each time I prayed with her for comfort in her final days, relief from pain and suffering, and strength to go on, if that is God’s will. I never asked her about her funeral plans. She wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it, I’m sure. But then, there was nothing for her to plan. There is just what is done: A simple gathering. A simple meal. A simple message of the resurrection that comes after grief.
“I will feel very lonely when I go home,” said Ursula’s husband, pastor Cristobal Flores. “Thank you for your prayers. I need God’s strength.”