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Nothing is certain but death… and bribery?

6 June 2020

Saturday, June 6, 2020. Chief of Government Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, has ordered the Mexico City Attorney General’s office to launch an investigation into private doctors and public officials selling altered death certificates during the on-going Covid-19 crisis.

Since early May cemetery workers have claimed that some funeral parlors were asking for money from the relatives of people who had died of COVID-19 to hire q”quack doctors” to change the cause of death on the certificates from COVID-19 to some other cause, which would allow the deceased to be buried rather than, as the health law requires, cremated.

Loosely translated from today’s (6-June 2020) La Jornada, it seems the scandal has less to do with the creative ways “corruptos” will take advantage of changing situations (not just the virus, but the reformist Sheinbaum administration), as it does with the enduring funeral practices of traditional Mexico… or those traditionalists with the wherewithal  to pay a hefty bribe anyway.

Despite a  3000 year old tradition of cremating the dead in Mexico, not all indigenous cultures practiced cremation, and the imported Spanish Catholics generally opposed cremation except in times of necessity (epidemic diseases being one obvious example).  Funeral customs, as they developed here, fascinate outsiders… not just the annual “Day of the Dead” celebrations, which families often spend a night in the cemetery partying with their deceased relations, or like some Mayans, opening up coffins to dress a corpse (or skeleton) in new clothing, but the entire ritual.

Labor contracts in Mexico often include the right to a “dignified burial”, and everyone strives to provide the “dignity” to the event in some way.  I have been to wakes held in family garages (with the … er… “guest of honor” resting on a couple of saw horses) and those in funeral parlors that had a cafeteria (or taco vendors wandering in).  Even if the corpse has not been embalmed (the reason for the elaborate floral displays… and, why, in tropical area, especially in places where electricity might not be available… funeral directors rent out casket-sized styrofoam  ice chests for the wake) it may run several days.

Although urban funerals are, like in the United States, generally followed by an procession of mourners in automobiles to the cemetery (and, here in Mexico City, some funeral directors provide their own bus), rural funeral processions still walk.. led by a band playing the deceased’s favorite music, or a lively marching tune. In B. Traven’s “Bridge in the Jungle” (about a young boy’s death and funeral), the band plays “Yes, We Have No Bananas”.

Depending on their wealth, their interests (or those of the deceased) and their skills, families often have their own monument’s built… anything from a simple iron marker to those gangster tombs replete with game rooms, piped in music and even cable television (one assumes for visitors, not the occupant).  I spent an afternoon in Villahermosa going through one cemetery where I found a dead rocker’s tomb covered in pink ceramic tile, with a window into the chamber, where there was a guitar… and a pair of blue suede shoes.  And … a woman’s work never done… another for a house-wife with a broom and mop at the ready.  For all eternity?

Not quite.  with limited burial space, cremation has become more and more popular in Mexico, especially in the City… and “perpetual care” for a grave only lasts as long as upkeep is paid.  Generally, about seven years, after which, if no one pays, the remains are dug up, and… NORMALLY… cremated.  I know of one family (and I am sure there are many out there) that every few years digs up the past (so to speak) to make room for the next generation, sorting out the bones of various great-grandparents for eventual interment in a smaller ossuary they have on a long-term lease.  Or… the cadaver .. .or what’s left of it… might just be turfed out.  Ernest Hemingway’s odd short story, “The Queen’s Mother” in which a bullfighter won’t release the check to pay for the upkeep on his mother’s grave explains his reasoning as wanting to release her to the elements… a not unheard sentiment.

Whatever the final outcome, the rituals surrounding burial are complex and involve social attitudes going back hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years.  To expect people to give them up, in the name of a “new normal” isn’t going to necessarily sit well, and one can understand that there are those willing to turn to less than legal methods to preserve their traditions.


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