Death in Rural Mexico

Women and the work of dying.

Feminist anthropologist married into a traditional Mexican family on what we in wealthier countries take for granted when it comes to death.

Dear Aunt Bianca,

Even though we were mere meters away, just across the street, Joel and I slept through your departure. They say you sat up on the edge of your bed at 6 am and tumbled to the floor. When your family lifted you up, you were unconscious, the veins in your face etched in black. You were just past 60 years of age.

Reportedly you suffered from high blood pressure, but you didn’t like taking the medicine. You preferred your brew of bitter herbs, and just the day before you’d taken another draught of them. This detail was seized upon by your children as part of an explanation for what otherwise seemed inexplicable. She must have been feeling bad already. Although when asked, you had denied it. Just give me my herbs, dammit.

It was a good death though, your nephew Joel remarked. Fast, and you didn’t suffer. And your family didn’t suffer either, with hospital visits, protracted death bed scenes, or spending money they didn’t have on medical expenses. So you must have been a good person, Joel concluded. He believes that good people get to have good deaths.

From the Collection of the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City.

Judging by the pursed expression on her face, Joel’s sister Ines was skeptical about this theory. But she was loath to speak badly of the dead. I tried to diffuse this awkward moment by asking them to remember good things about you. They came up with you rarely left your house (homebodiness being a sign of virtuous womanhood), and that whenever they visited you, you pressed a freshly-made tortilla into their hands, no matter what the time of day. “She was always making tortillas.” Oh, and that whenever you were invited to a party, you went.

Parties were the only time I ever saw you outside of your house. You were a nervous, bird-like presence, seated there at your table in the corner. Indeed, the day you died a yellowed-eyed junco flew purposefully into our living room and then out the door again without any of the usual window-bashing panic. I thought of you and how it wasn’t the first time you’d dispatched a bird to our place. On an earlier occasion your fat white hen paid a call. I found her roosting atop a kitchen chair, and she pooped on its seat when I tried to shoo her out. When Joel complained about your leaky chicken (“The next time your gallina gets in my house I’m going to eat it!”), you got huffy and declined to apologize for the inconvenience.

Things were apparently always a little tense between our families. There were multiple scuffles over our adjacent property lines. One time years ago you got mad when my mother-in-law Lupita cut down some trees outside the community corn mill. You seemed to think that this communal property was part of your homestead. Lupita set you straight by decking you, and after that you never messed with her.

Even before that incident, people say that you never much liked Lupita. There are several theories. Both pivot on jealousy. One: it was because your late mother-in-law always preferred her daughter-in-law Lupita to you. Two: it was because you had eyes for Joel’s dad, but then he married Lupita. And then you married his older brother, Reynaldo.

From the Collection of the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City.

He was not such a good catch, this older brother. He drank a lot. One time he was drinking and blinded himself in one eye with a flying beer bottle cap. Now that eye is a dead milky blue. Most would take that kind of mishap as a sobriety wake-up call. Not Tío Reynaldo, he kept going. They say that you used to drink a lot with him. It makes me wonder about the effect all that drinking had on your nine kids. They’re sweet, but they give the impression of being a bit, well, touched. They speak in wispy voices and laugh at inappropriate moments. Many of them are single and live at home. Pardon me for saying that they seem kind of lost.

They seemed even more lost after your unexpected passing. Their confusion and indecisiveness in the face of all of the funerary tasks suddenly required of them alarmed Lupita. “They’re so desubicados,” she said several times. Dislocated. Out of it. She sounded so deeply sad when she said this that I suspected that she was thinking not about you, Bianca, but about herself. She knows that we too will be completely desubicados when, God forbid, we lose our matriarch.

Meanwhile, in a moment of uncharacteristic decisiveness, your children declared that they would throw you a two-day rather than a one-day wake. Twice as much time = twice as much food and coffee, and the question then became who would step up and handle all of this prep when your own kids were too distraught to pick the rocks out of the dried beans.

Another indelicate question that this decision brought up had to do with embalming. When you collapsed, your eldest rushed you to the hospital. When there was nothing to be done for you, he brought you home, still sporting your pj’s and your original bodily fluids. It’s cool up here in the mountains, but not that cool. Could your body make it through two full days before the burial without something unseemly coming to pass?

From the Collection of the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City.

Upon your return, your sons unloaded you delicately from the back seat of the car, placed you on a table under the carport and covered you with a white tablecloth. You looked so tiny lying there. Then they asked your sister-in-law Lupita if she would dress you. She answered this request by slipping across the street to her own house to supervise the making of hundreds of tortillas for the days to come. And another woman stepped up for this task, hopefully before your rigor mortis set in.

This awkwardness gave me a sharp retroactive burst of gratitude for the professional charged with arraying my dead grandmother. He filed her ragged nails and painted them a tasteful pink, primped her hair into a Queen Elizabeth hair helmet, just like she’d been wearing it ever since 1955, and covered her face with the pale foundation she’d always used. When I saw her arrayed in her open casket, she looked like herself, only sleeping.

Here in the village there were no such professionals. It was all on the family. Many remarked how fortunate it was that your neighbor retouched your roots and perm two days before, so at least that aspect of your appearance was to your liking. This weekend was going to be a weekend of parties, because all the kids in the village were getting confirmed together. You had gotten your hair done in preparation for all the post-confirmation parties that the weekend promised. But instead you ended up as the guest of honor at your own party, in a gray velveteen casket surrounded by paint buckets full of flowers.

Your passing reinforces the lesson that sudden death always give us — that life is short and oh so ephemeral, so enjoy it. I, for one, like to leave my house sometimes. (If I didn’t, I’d probably be taking nips in my morning coffee too). That’s why I didn’t stick around for your two-day wake and funeral, because, you see, we already had plans to go away for the weekend.

These plans included getting Joel’s dutiful sister Ines out of the house too. But then when you died she said, “Oh no, I can’t go now. What would people say?” But Lupita urged her to join us anyway, and Ines heeded her mother’s advice. So she too escaped from further participation in the huge responsibility that death puts upon women in small, tight-knit rural communities. Instead, we frolicked in the colonial charm of Guanajuato, where we walked its bustling streets after dark and paid others to prepare our food. And when we spoke of you, we spoke well of you. Que en paz descanse, Tía Bianca.

Women’s work: Author with inlaws cleaning graves on Day of the Dead, outside of Macheros, State of Mexico.

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