The sounds of burial

November is well into summer season in the Paraguayan Chaco and it may be hot today, though perhaps the morning will be pleasant enough. The funeral service for our sister/sister-in-law will be at 9.

We’re not there, of course, as we live in Canada. But our thoughts will be. Already are. — One thing I like about the way the Mennonites in Paraguay bury their dead (which I saw for the first time when our family lived there in the early 1980s) is the custom of the mourners themselves filling up the hole. Here the coffin may be left to “float” over the cavity, or, if it’s lowered,  any dirt thrown over will be symbolic. A machine will come later and take care of it quickly.

But in the Chaco, the men of the family (I only observed men doing this) take the shovels that are waiting and start filling in the hole, and as they tire, others come and relieve them, and while everyone watches, the hole is filled — not just filled, but mounded (for the earth will sink) — and the wreaths that stood in the church are piled on the mound. Only then is the burial complete. “You deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing,” says Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker. This custom makes unavoidable the awareness of how death is truly a return to decay, and the earth.

But I learned something else. In H.’s memories of childhood, those sounds — of the clods of earth hitting the wooden box that held the body — were terrifying and gruesome. Others said the same thing. At the last funeral we attended there, he immediately noticed that the earth had been dampened, and that the young men who began the shovelling had been careful to throw it against the side of the cavity, not on the coffin directly.  

So yes, dealing with the dead thing. But for the children standing round the grave this morning, this hope — so nothing will frighten them:

             oh, may the earth be loose and light,

             may it fall as quietly as leaves,

             may it wrap her with a whisper…

            oh, may the earth be loose and light.