Bong . . . bong bong . . . bong . . . bong bong . . . When the church bell rings in that cadence it signals that a funeral is about to begin.

We enter the funeraria [mortuary] about sundown, making our way through the crowd of young people, dressed in jeans, pullovers, sneakers, one with a guitar.  A young priest, could he be as old as twenty-five?, stands with them.  Inside and down the corridor we hear the older ladies, –Dios te salve, María [Hail, Mary], going around the beads.

The room where the body lies is arranged like a little chapel, with the coffin at one end and pews facing the coffin.  We enter the chapel.  There are only women there.  We walk around the pews, Delia kissing every lady she knows, murmuring a few words of consolation, then introducing me as her friend.  Dios te salve....  We arrive at the coffin.  The upper half of the lid is open but a sheet of glass prevents touching the body.  I later ask Delia why the glass is used.  She doesn’t know, but it is always done.

The round finished, Delia sits down with the ladies, joins in the rosary.  I slip through a door at the rear into a little kitchen, where there are snacks and coffee.  The men are gathered here, telling their stories of hunting and fishing, working and living, as the ladies go around the beads.  Dios te salve....

Daniel was twenty years old.  He was a student at the state university of Chihuahua.  He had already been accepted by the diocese to begin studies for the priesthood when he finished his undergraduate work.  He had come home for a weekend.  He had gone out for an evening with a buddy, in the buddy’s car.  You know the rest.  They had a few beers, the buddy maybe more than a few.  They started home and the buddy put on too much speed.  Daniel pleaded with him to slow down.  The buddy assured Daniel there was no danger, and speeded up.  He lost control, left the road, and hit a power pole a foot in diameter, hit it broadside.  Daniel died the next day of multiple internal injuries.  We know about the dialogue because his buddy lived to tell it; wasn’t hurt much, in fact.

A wail begins at the coffin.  It is Daniel’s mother.  When she cries out some ladies rush to her side while others join the wail.  The beads do not stop.  Dios te salve....

Finally it is full dark and the young people begin to drift in, standing along the walls, in the aisle.  The guitarist sounds a few notes and soon they are singing, light popular music of the day alternating with funeral songs.  They are still singing when we leave.  The beads have not stopped.  Dios te salve....


                             *     *     *


By nine-thirty the day is hot already and the church is nearly full already.  Two men are struggling with big Peavey speakers, setting them up outside the church, a parish in Villa Hermosa, a suburb of Nuevo Casas Grandes.  In the plaza across from the church the neighborhood children continue their noisy play.  Priests begin to arrive, young priests, two thirds of them must be under thirty-five.  More people come.  The church has wide doors on each side of the nave, as well as at the rear, and all these doors are thrown open as people look in at the now filled pews and crowded aisles; they jockey for positions that will let them see what’s going on through the open doors.

Bong . . . bong bong . . . The hearse arrives precisely at ten and the church is sweltering hot.  Three priests in heavy robes make their way down the aisle to receive the body.  They murmur prayers and sprinkle holy water.  The crowd in the aisle presses together to let the clergy and coffin pass to the altar.  The censer swings, its chains clattering—clack ...  clack... clack—and clouds of incense rise like an ascending soul.  The young priests intone solemn chants over what is left of their not-yet-brother priest.  There is a flurry of action near the coffin.  People make way for an overweight man who has fainted to be carried out.  The mass continues, Santo, santo, santo ... the elevation ... the communion ... and now the bell tolls differently as the coffin is placed in the hearse, bong . . . bong . . . bong, one stroke about every fifteen seconds.

A police car arrives to lead the procession the half mile to the cemetery.  The hearse falls in behind the police.  Next follows a black pickup truck, in the bed of which are seated half a dozen musicians.  Then follow the bulk of the people, walking slowly.  Bringing up the rear are the cars of those too old or infirm to walk.  As the procession moves out the musicians began to play and we hear the mystery of mariachi, its haunting juxtaposition of peppy rhythms and mournful harmonies.  The bell continues behind us, bong . . . bong . . . bong . . .


                             *     *     *


The hearse arrives at the cemetery.  Pallbearers carry the coffin high on their shoulders, for if they carry it by the handles they won’t have room to pass between the monuments.  They wear military uniforms.  They are Daniel’s former classmates at a local military high school.  They lower the coffin onto the waiting machinery and withdraw from the grave.  The mariachi men continue singing and playing until the priests arrive.  The priests stand silent waiting for the walking, straggling crowd to gather round the grave.

Prayers are said, short ones.  A mortuary employee then steps forward, trips a latch, and guides the slow descent of the coffin into the grave.  He disconnects the straps on one side of the mechanism, then pulls them out of the grave on the other side.

The grave has been prepared the day before with a poured-in-place vault.  A bottom layer of concrete was poured, then a wooden box set over it, then more concrete poured around the sides, so that the vault is all there except the lid.

Now that the coffin has been lowered, from near the hearse another man steps forward, a boy really, in sneakers and jeans.  He hops lightly into the grave and lands with one foot on each side of the wooden box.  Someone passes down boards, nails, hammer.  Thack ... thack ... thack. 

The first board is nailed into place.  Thack ... thack ... thack. 

Another.  Thack ... thack ... thack.  Six in all.

Steel reinforcement mesh is handed down.  The boy positions it to cover the now lidded box.  Someone extends a hand.  He takes it, and hops out of the grave as lightly as he hopped in.

The boy and the mortuary man now step behind a nearby monument and return, one with an enormous wheelbarrow, the other with two five-gallon buckets of water.  The wheelbarrow contains dry concrete.  Some of the water is added and the concrete mixed with hoe and shovel.  The wheelbarrow is carefully rolled to the edge of the grave and tipped.  Sssssh ... sssssh ... sssssh.  The roof of the vault is poured in place.  The mother begins to wail.

The men pick up shovels and begin to fill the grave from the pile of earth mounded at one side.  Chffff ...  chffff ... chffff.  The shovelfuls of dirt cover the completed vault.  Many individuals step up, take a handful of dirt, and throw it into the pit, then move away as their lips move and their hands trace the cross over their faces.  The shoveling continues until the grave is filled.  Chffff ... chffff ... chffff.  The mother goes on wailing.

It is high noon.  The grave has been filled.  The mother is quiet.  The priests leave.  A cooling breeze picks up.  On the breeze we hear faintly—bong . . . bong . . . bong . . . bong . . . bong . . .


© 2004 Joseph Mansfield