Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Understanding Brazil – Funerals

The title is a little misleading, being based on the only one that I’ve been to, but my experience may help those thrown in at the cultural deep end of a Brazilian funeral, as I was recently.

The first noticeable difference with a Brazilian funeral is that you had better be prepared to drop everything as soon as you hear of a death. Probably as a consequence of the heat, if somebody dies one day, the funeral legally has to be the following day. Unless the family wants to pay expensive refrigeration fees. No time to spend hunting around for a black suit and a black tie, which may be why nobody wears them. Shorts, havaianas, anything’s good.

Having received notice of the death, we hastily got our things together and headed off to the nearest relative’s house. The funeral was due to start at 2pm, an hour’s drive away. We set off at 8.30am. The first, and possibly last, time that I’ve ever known Brazilians to arrive somewhere early. More than 4 hours early. We weren’t alone, even then, with most of the close family having been sat up all night in the cemetery chapel with the deceased himself. One of the sons preferred to spend the night waiting outside. Never having met any of them before, the introductions were a little red-eyed, and it didn’t seem like the right time for gringo smalltalk. There were some comedy moments though, such as the daughters introducing me to the man himself for the first time, lying in his coffin. He didn’t have much to say to me. I stood around for a while, chatting to other family members who hadn’t been seen for years, trying to resist the urge to use one elbow to lean casually on the coffin. It was at the perfect height.

By midday, the place had filled up, with the whispers of the mourners punctuated by the resounding boom of Brazilian men beating each other. Brazilians aren’t the most macho of Latinos but they still have their moments. Not wanting to be seen as anything but masculine, instead of greeting each other with a big hug, they put one arm around the shoulder and beat the other shoulder or the chest of their friend four times. Not three, not five, always four, and hard enough to not be seen as too affectionate. The poor sons had this all day. Sympathetic noises and a beating from scores of men, when all they really wanted was a proper cuddle which was obvious when the women did just that. Not many people spent much time actually speaking to them though.

The time on the sign outside the room had the family name with a time of 5pm. There was nobody else but our group, no queue to worry about. Surely some mistake? Apparently not. A hole eight hours of sitting in a room with a dead body and no booze felt a little too much. Being a Brazilian funeral, lunch had to be involved somewhere, so we disappeared into town for a couple of hours. When we returned, the atmosphere had brightened a little. None of the brothers were particularly upset, one being punished for telling jokes, another telling stories and making laughter ring out louder than the chest beating. By 4pm, somebody else was running around the coffin as a joke. I blamed it on the free cachaça I´d had at lunch and nobody complained.

The service finally started, the casket was closed and we trooped up the hill to the neat, deep grave. The gravediggers started to empty the soil from the wheelbarrow and I hoped that we weren´t going to stay until the very end. It would take hours to fill and after a long day´s funeralling, I needed a beer. Perhaps a vol-au-vent or two at the after-party. But no. Everybody went straight home. This is definitely not how we do it in my family.

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