About 3 months ago our neighbors Don Florencio, Dona Lydia and their family found out that their Grandson, Marvin Gonzalo Hernandez Aquino, was struck by a car and killed in Mexico. He was only 21 years old. It was an extremely sad time for them but also a financial crisis. His body was in Mexico and there was no way to get it returned to El Salvador. The cost was going to be considerable and the dollars were needed right away or the body would be discarded. This family not only had to deal with the suffering of loss but also the possibility not being able to bury a family member with the care and love we would want for all our loved ones. It was very hard for everyone but fortunately they found an agency that was able to help them retrieve Marvin’s body. This was not easy, as they had to travel various times to San Salvador to fill out applications and provide documentation. All the while the body was held in Mexico.
Dianne and I witness the many challenges of people born into poverty like this but this was one aspect we never considered. The need for jobs causes people to leave their home countries but what happens if there’s a tragedy like this? Unfortunately most people, in this situation, don’t have the funds or know anyone who can help them. Sometimes a loved one is simply discarded. It’s a harsh reality to swallow.
As Dianne and I have found out numerous times since we have accepted this mission, our Lord truly works in mysterious ways.
We spent this past week in San Salvador finalizing immigration papers, meeting with Bishop Barahona about the Mission in El Maizal and we thought we were going to have a meeting about buying a car in the near future. The meeting about purchasing a vehicle was not about the future, it was about us buying one, right then and there. We’re now the happy owners of an Isuzu Pickup. We thought to ourselves, wow was that fast and thought of all the things we needed and could do in the future. Otra vez (again) the future was now. There was a great need in the community that we were not even aware of yet.
When I called our community to tell them the news and when we were returning, Nelson told me that Marvin’s (Florencios Grandson) body was being returned on Friday, the same day we were coming back to El Maizal. Friday was a world wind of a day. I drove from San Salvador to El Maizal, then El Maizal to San Salvador, back to El Maizal before we could find out what the schedule was for Marvin’s services.
God fast tracked the truck for a reason. Our help was needed to transport family members back from the cemetery where they were preparing the grave and then go to another community to see about renting a canopy. After that, Dianne and I attended Marvin’s funeral service. At that time a member of the family asked if I would transport the Casket, Don Florencio and Dona Lydia to the cemetery the following morning. I was caught off guard because of it being such and out of the ordinary request. I quickly agreed to such and honor and responsibility, the thought of helping them like that was quite moving, to be honest.
The Evening Service was a combination wake and funeral. When we arrived at the Church the casket was on display with a picture of Marvin, he was a handsome young man; it’s such a sad loss. The casket was in the center of the church with the pews to the side and chairs set up in their place. Many people were outside talking, eating and drinking while some of us sat in the church. We waited almost 2 to 3 hours for the 5PM service to start and during that time family and friends came in and out of the church to view the casket and pay their respects. It was a great sense of community and family with so many people and children milling about. The service was Burial of the Dead Rite one and I was given the privilege of reading Salmo 1. The only difference was at the end the visiting priest had us say the Hail Mary with our closing prayers. The strong Catholic presence in Central America is ever present even in an Episcopal service. I’m a former Catholic and praying to Mary during times of trouble has always had an appeal and calming effect for me. I still say Hail Mary’s in time of trouble.
The service was followed by a family all-night vigil at the church. Mattresses were brought in so people could rest but much of the time was spent just being together. Dianne and I didn’t attend the vigil but visited for a short period after the service.
The following morning was the burial. The family had left the vigil, freshened up, ate and returned to the Church. It was very sad to see our neighbors go through such sadness; in particular Lydia was very overwrought and crying. We couldn’t help but cry ourselves. Grandparents are not supposed to bury their grandchildren. Marvin’s Uncles were the Pall bearers and they carried the Casket to my truck and placed it in the back, surrounded it with the flowers and tied it in place. In my truck Florencio, Lydia and 2 of their grandchildren travelled with Dianne and I. The procession was our vehicle 1st, followed by 2 other trucks and a number of people walking. I drove far to the right at a walking pace with emergency lights flashing. I want to mention that as cars passed us and people on the side of the road watched, many of them made signs of the cross in prayer for the dead and the family. As we crept along trailers and motorists passed us at breakneck speeds but we solemnly kept our pace.
The cemetery was about 3 miles down the road. We had to weave through a small community to a soccer field that was also the entrance to the cemetery. The cemetery was bursting with mostly above the ground vaults, no more than a foot apart. In some areas the vaults are in front of each other and I have no idea how people get to the vaults in the back except by standing on the ones in front. A few graves were just mounds of dirt but most are cement vaults. What’s interesting is that the families make and maintain these vaults. That’s what the men were doing the night before when I picked them up there. I know I’m describing something very foreign but in a way very beautiful. Numerous vaults are either painted very nicely of a solid color or have tiles that make up the outside and many have flowers placed on them. You can see and feel the respect that people have for their passed loved ones by viewing how some of them are maintained. The path into the cemetery is so small that you need to back in and then drive out. I tried my best to back in but eventually one of the men in the family volunteered to back in. I gladly handed him my keys. In no place on the path do you have much more than a foot or 2 of clearance on both sides and in many places it’s only 6 inches to a foot. Let me add the path is not recto (straight).
The vault was about a hundred yards into the cemetery and when we arrived, saw horses were put in place so the Casket could then be placed there surrounded by flowers. The Pall bearers somberly brought the Casket to its place and the grave side service commenced. It was not an Episcopal nor Catolica Romano (Roman Catholic), I believe it was Evangelical. The preacher spoke enthusiastically for over 1 ½ hours only interrupted by some standard prayers and hymns. As we listened I couldn’t help but notice that a frozen ice vendor had followed us. In this heat he was doing good business. I avoid them because it’s simply a big block of ice (of unknown origin) being shaved into a cup with syrup put on it. It looks tasty but not worth the risk.
As the service came to an end the family performs its final acts of respect for Marvin. The family places the casket into the shallow vault using ropes. The family then places bouquets inside the vault. Then as we all watch, braces are placed just above the casket, on the braces a sheet of corrugated aluminum is fitted into places, on top of that is a welded grate and then paper is stuffed into any openings on the side. The men of the family then mix a large pile of cement, by hand on the ground next to the vault. Two men shovel and mix while others add water, once the correct thickness is obtained they then take turns shoveling it on top of the grates. It’s finally smoothed over. The men then use bricks to create a form of a cross next to the vault and fill it with cement, when it’s hardened that cross will be put on the vault. Lastly the family places the remaining flowers either on or around the grave and leave.
As I drove out, there was a sense of finality for Florencio and Lydia. They talked normally and even chuckled about something. The night before a family member said they personally were over the suffering but now just wanted this whole tragedy to be put to a close. 3 Months is a long time to deal with any tragedy let alone the death of a young family member..
Many, many things about this struck me but the devotion the family showed each other struck me most. The Grandmother constantly had one of her children or grandchildren with her. The brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles all consoled one another but also shared the good memories they had. I believe this to be true because of the laughter I heard coming from the vigil. Yes families grieve but we also know that even during the grief someone is going to say, Remember when we did this, or he did that” and the great memories flood back and our tears turn to laughter and smiles.
A final interesting note is that when we all went to the cemetery many attendees had lemons with them. They’d rub them in their hands, some were partially peeled and the people where smelling them. I thought maybe they were to cover foul smells but I didn’t notice any. We finally found out later. When everything was over and we were at our house, Nelson came over. He wanted us to bring the clothes we were wearing earlier. They had a fire going and they were burning Lemons leaves creating smoke. They believe that the smoke from the lemon leaves killed off any germs from the dead bodies we were exposed to. We smoked our clothes then we stood in the smoke also. They were sniffing the lemons because they thought it would kill the germs in the air. Maybe it’s just legend or maybe it works but as they say when in Rome.
It was all quite the experience on many levels (again). I hope you will all say a prayer for Marvin, as his short journey on earth is now over. His family’s journey continues on without him and may we all have the solace that Marvin now has the joy and gladness of God’s Kingdom that awaits all of us.
Tom and Dianne