January 18th, 2012

Morning in the Cemetery

The farmer who lost his wife just 2 months earlier stood before me in his tan slacks and open blue shirt. His disheveled cowboy hat was cocked back on his brow. He squinted in the sunlight as he explained that here in this quiet, windswept cemetery lay his wife, her name carved into a small cross at the head of her tomb.

He hadn’t shaved in a few days and I thought could sense sadness in his words although, if this was true, he did little else to betray his feelings. Paraguayan men don’t really cry, or at least that’s what they say. Maybe it’s the machismo—or maybe it has more to do with the nature of death as it manifests itself among Paraguayan people. In this culture, dying is a process that continues long after one’s heart stops beating.

The tombs of well-off rural families in Paraguay are constructed of concrete with a casita for floral tributes at the head.

The tombs of well-off rural families in Paraguay are constructed of concrete with a casita for floral tributes at the head.

If one visits a Paraguayan cemetery, several features stand out immediately. The rows of tombs are wide and long, more like streets than aisles. And, seemingly as a way to solidify this similarity, Paraguayans will sometimes label the rows with street names written on street signs—at least in the larger cemeteries. The tombs (called pantheones by Paraguayans) are much more than just carved headstones laid in the ground. Each tomb resembles an aboveground altar. For the poorer families, this is often little more than a small brick or wooden structure, possibly even a dirt mound, adorned with a casita (“little house” in English) at its head. In the months following a death—usually on the one-month, two-month, or three-month anniversary—the family will revisit the pantheon to decorate with colored tiles, flowers (in the case of this farmer, small flowers placed in makeshift pots made from recycled soda bottles), trinkets, or other small items.

Families of low to moderate income often commemorate their dead with wooden tombs.

Families of low to moderate income often commemorate their dead with wooden tombs.

For the wealthier families, or at least those with more to invest (financially or emotionally) in such an endeavor, the pantheon can assume great prominence. Socioeconomics, it seems, plays out even in the afterlife. Some pantheones resemble mausoleums, rivaling both in size and structural integrity the very houses in which many Paraguayans live. While most rural homes are made of mud bricks or wood slats, the cemeteries are often mistakable for communities themselves with towering concrete rooms dedicated to dead family members. The priorities between the living and the dead are skewed in a way that differs largely from other cultures I have experienced and particularly from U.S. culture. This may relate to the religious tendencies of these people, as this country is predominantly Catholic. It may also have something to do with the connections of many Paraguayan people to indigenous practices or histories.

A dirt mound, a cross, and a candle mark the grave of a child from a poor rural family.

A dirt mound, a cross, and a candle mark the grave of a child from a poor rural family.

Regardless, it reflects an amazing reverence that people in this culture hold for death—the allocation of resources (especially in a country with a large portion of the population living in poverty), the regard in which people dedicate time and energy toward post-death rituals (for months and years, even decades following), and the way that all of this falls in stride with the daily lives of most Paraguayans. The anniversary of one’s death and birth are observed during weeklong events for the first few years following his or her passing. Then, for the next several decades, smaller but still significant observances are continually held to commemorate these important dates. The dead do not die—at least not until their living memory is lost with the passing of the next few generations.

Mario helped this local farmer apply blue tiles to his wife’s pantheon, or aboveground tomb.

Mario helped this local farmer apply blue tiles to his wife’s pantheon, or aboveground tomb.

The north wind is blowing hard through the palm trees when we finish working. It is late morning and the sun is now playing kaleidoscope between the branches and through the grasses of this tropical landscape. It is going to rain tomorrow, the farmer tells me. His wife’s tomb looks only slightly better than it did an hour before—the weeds have been cleared, a fresh layer of concrete added to the exterior. He wants to add tiles to the outside; he thinks that blue would look nice. We leave the cemetery and the mood is not solemn or melancholy. There is more work to be done. The fields must be hoed, the crops harvested, the beans dried, and the garden tended. And so our day continues, only an hour later than it would have otherwise, and with my head pondering the matter-of-fact nature in which we visited death for the morning.

—Mario Machado


Mario Machado is a Peace Corps volunteer serving as an agricultural educator in the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native and 2011 Penn State graduate spent the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Rodale Institute and the Organic Gardening test garden.

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