Friday, August 14, 2009

Dressed in black

Not too long ago I had one of those expat experiences, that we all hope to never go through – or that we hope to at least postpone as long as possible. I was a little torn over if I should even blog about the situation. But my mind was made up when I searched the internet for some information on what to expect over here and came up with almost nothing. I decided that, although it’s entirely likely that my blog never shows up on a google search, I would at least contribute my impressions to the internet world – impressions from my first Spanish funeral.

When word came early one morning that a close family member had passed away, I wondered what was next. I already knew a bit about the main steps to be taken but, obviously, had never taken them before. The immediate family of the departed handled the paperwork at the hospital - I heard from my mother-in-law that it didn’t go all that smoothly; the doctor didn’t fill out the death certificate correctly and they were forced to return later to correct things.

Midday things moved to the funeral home. The one chosen was relatively “state of the art” (outdoor gardens, chapels, and 20+ individual parlors set up with sofas and private restrooms) and walking distance from my in-laws’ house. Nacho remembers playing soccer in the park there when he was younger. Traditionally the immediate family stays at the funeral home the entire time – from the moment the deceased is brought there until the funeral. Friends and other family comes and go throughout that time – more or less like a wake in the States. Although the immediate family traditionally stays overnight (or even over two nights if the timing is really poor), my mother-in-law told me that nowadays a lot of people set a time, midnight, for example, when they close and lock the room and go home to try and get some sleep. That wasn’t the case in my experience, however.

As this is Spain after all it seems important to note that there is no smoking allowed, at least where we were, much to the consternation of many of the visitors. However, as to be expected, there was the ever-present cafeteria where smoking is permitted. I haven’t spent much time in funeral homes in the States, but I don’t recall any coffee shops there… I suppose it is intended to accommodate the lengthy stays of the families.

In Spain, funerals take place quickly compared to American standards. Burials/cremations cannot occur less than 24 hours after the death but typically they are scheduled to be as near as possible to that time. The rule is that if the death happens in the morning, the funeral will be the following morning. The same goes for a death in the afternoon. The problem arises when the death happens in the evening or at night, due to that 24 hour rule… those people are typically buried the morning of the 2nd day – perhaps the reason for why the funeral in this case was pushed to 2:30pm the following day despite being an early morning passing. Everyone seemed a bit miffed by this but I got the feeling that it was something to talk about more than actual annoyance.

Regarding this same idea – a quick anecdote. When we were living in Florida we met a number of other Spaniards. One of our good friends there missed his father’s funeral because, although he left almost immediately upon hearing the news, he missed the connecting flight down to the south of Spain.

What I was most surprised by was the clothing people wore to the funeral. I chose my most conservative, black dress and closed-toe shoes. Imagine my surprise when many of the others in attendance were dressed in bright colors, flowered shirts, shorts and Capri pants, cotton tank tops… This is, after all, the country with “strict” guidelines about the length of the dress you can wear to a wedding depending on if it’s during the day or the evening. Nacho said perhaps it’s because it’s the summer and people tend to be more casual – more so even in August than in other months.

A sign was posted outside the chapel at the cemetery stating that the flowers placed there would be donated at the end of the day. Despite that fact, many people were taking flowers from the arrangements. I understand wanting to take some of them home – particularly the ribbons and notes adorning the flowers. And this was probably the most motivating thought. However, there was also the thought, “why let the gypsies get them?” I have no idea if this is true or not but apparently a commonly-held belief is that many of the gypsies selling flowers on the street corners came by their wares by visiting the city’s cemeteries…

After the funeral was over there was no mass gathering at the family’s house. People simply went on home. The government allows you three days off work (counting the weekends) for the death of a close family member (seven if it’s the spouse – common law or otherwise); “close” meaning parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and siblings only. I was surprised to find out that no provisions are made for the hours needed to attend a funeral of a family member beyond that relation or for a friend. I asked my boss what I could do, expecting that the funeral would be in the morning hours. Turns out my only option was to take a vacation day, so I intended to do just that. When he saw me the following morning (since the funeral ended up being in the afternoon) he made a comment that convinced me that he thinks I had an interview or the like and had given him an excuse the day before in order to get out of work. I’ll save my thoughts on that one for another post, however.

En fin, other than the logistical differences, clearly death is one of those things that unites us. Another of those equalizers. We may honor it in different ways, show our grief with different colors and customs, mourn for different lengths of time, but when it comes down to it, the feelings of loss are surely the same.


Enrique said...

Thanks for sharing that.

JustMe said...

Always interesting to observe these customs in another culture.