A few weeks ago our base community buried Mercedes. She lived for 86 years and died of natural causes. She left many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to inherit her life. Family, earth, wind, rain, trees, the Torogoz (the national bird of El Salvador) and Chinchontepec, the 6,000-foot volcano just to our east, were her greatest luxuries. The view of the volcano from Mercedes’ shanty remains the most beautiful living room I have ever seen.
In her funeral procession from La Esperanza to the municipal cemetery, most people walked while children rode in trucks or on their fathers’ backs. Over the last several months, kids have grown very afraid of the cemetery. In our town of Cojutepeque, there are four or five COVID-19 burials every day.
Funeral trucks, with two men in protective suits in back with the coffin, are escorted by police pickups. Misery lights flashing and sirens wailing, they race to the cemetery. No family or friends are allowed to sing or pray or accompany a loved one on their journey. Children make up stories and fear the well-protected personnel in masks, gloves, plastic overalls and hoods who ride in the back.
“Monstros que comen los muertos” (monsters who eat the dead),” they say. “If we see them, where will we hide?” Fortunately, during our procession we didn’t encounter a COVID burial.
As we started our procession, catechists gave everyone white balloons and asked people to inflate them. We explained to the children, “Your breath is going into the balloon. Your breath is who you are — your character, your personality, your spirit. You are part of everything — the air, the earth, the volcano, the trees; all creation.”
We also explained that when we arrive at the gates of the cemetery, the children would not be allowed entry, due to COVID-19 rules. So we asked them to give their balloons to the adults who would enter and dress and adorn Mercedes’ tomb with the balloons — our breath and spirit — which would then accompany her into her new life.
So this is how we buried Mercedes.
A few days later we gave her youngest grandchildren Winnie the Pooh shirts. On one shirt, Pooh is holding a blue balloon, and on another he has a bumble bee.
Little Lorena looked at her bumble bee shirt and ran into the house to try it on; not more than 30 seconds later, she ran back out, coily modeling it for us. With a grin as bright as the sun and eyes as large as a full moon, she crooked her head and stared at us. The grin then turned to a smile, and we could feel Mercedes’ spirit holding up the world.