San Jose del Pacifico is a tiny town 132 kilometers south of Oaxaca in southeastern Mexico. I had traveled there on a careening, jolting, second-class bus on January 4, 2006. When I got to San Jose, I found four small cabins just off the main road, one of which I rented for $10 a night. The bathroom for the cabins was down an outside walkway and behind a door that was open the bottom six inches and the top eighteen inches. The water for the shower was hot, but for the two sinks just outside the bathroom it was cold.
Early in the afternoon on the day after I arrived, the church bells rang. There were two rings—an insistent high-pitched jangle and a lower-pitched peal. Not long after both had ceased, I heard music coming from the single road that goes through the town. I left my cabin to see what was going on.
A procession of about 75 people was making its way up the road. I walked after it and soon saw that at the head of the procession a casket lay on the bed of a slowly moving pickup truck. Behind the truck there was a nine-piece band consisting of four saxophone players, two drummers, a trumpet player, a bass trumpet player, and a tuba player. They were playing a tune for twenty seconds, then walking for a couple of minutes,as the procession wound its way toward the town’s church. The large horn of the tuba rose above all of our heads.
When we got to the church, everyone stood outside its entrance for close to an hour, waiting for the funeral to start. The women held in their arms flowers they had picked. The band played now and then, and the town misfit arrived and sung haphazardly and unceremoniously. The night before he had done the same in the local restaurant I had happened to be in. That morning I had seen him sleeping on a pile of wood―sprawled, dirty, and unkempt.
Finally, the funeral was ready to begin. Two men moved the casket to a wood frame. Four men, two at each end, picked up the frame and moved it and the casket to the front of the church. Everyone followed.
The church was typical of Mexican Catholic churches: there were paintings on the walls, statues, and an ornate altar. It was not, of course, nearly as ornate as the cathedrals in Puebla and Oaxaca . The pews were of plain wood, with merely two horizontal slats to support one’s back. There were no kneelers. At the appropriate time during the hour-long service, everyone knelt on the hard, ceramic tile floor. I did as well. The misfit stood in the back of the church, singing inappropriately. That did not, however, last during the whole service. Either he was guided out or he left of his own accord.
After the funeral, during which I recognized only two words—“Amen” and “Alleluia,” about half of the people who were present went to the front to view the person in the casket, which had been open since the beginning of the funeral. After the casket was closed, six men carried it to the pickup truck. The truck moved toward the dirt road that ran past the church, and everyone followed it. By this time the group had increased to over a hundred Mexicans and one lone American trailing along at the end.
The procession made its way slowly to the cemetery, while the nine-piece band played intermittently, mostly the same tune. It was not in a minor key, I noticed, as I would have expected, but neutral and even bright. Traffic on the road had to stop and wait for the procession to pass.
At the cemetery the casket was set beside the grave while two men prepared to lower it into the grave with a long, blue rope. They did so, then pulled the rope back out. A flower or two was thrown into the grave, and a large plastic bag was placed into it―it looked as if it contained clothes.
Two men then took shovels and started shoveling dirt into the grave from the large pile next to the grave. After ten or fifteen minutes, two other men relieved them. It took thirty or forty minutes for them to shovel all the dirt into the grave and form a large mound above it. I found myself crying a couple of times while the shoveling was going on. Again, the band played intermittently.
After the mound of dirt next to the grave had been thoroughly leveled, six large plastic buckets were placed on the mound of dirt that had been built over the grave. The flowers that the women had been holding were placed into the buckets. Then two candles were placed into the dirt and lit. They were at least two feet long, so that the flames on them were nearly level with the flowers. At this point, the priest said words, probably a prayer. When he finished, someone blew out the flames on the candles and pulled the candles out of the dirt. All of us gradually dispersed as the band continued to play. Then it, too, left.
From the time I had joined the procession to the time I left the cemetery it was three and a half hours. I felt as if I had witnessed something intense and profound.