It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Ecclesiastes 7:2funeral bow

I recently went to a house of mourning.  A neighbor of the mission died of a heart attack.  His friends called him Toto.  He was in his forties.  He was a taxi driver.  A real nice guy.  Occasionally I would get rides from him, and sometimes he wouldn’t charge me.  I did not go because we were such great friends, but because his wife, Guermina, used to work at the mission as a cook.  My wife, Anita, who is a cook at the mission, was friends with her, as were others here.  Toto left behind his wife, a son, and three daughters.

Sunday morning before church, Anita and I walked down the road to the house of mourning.  In this part of Mexico, when someone dies, a large tarp, resembling a circus tent is erected in the front yard, and this was no exception.  It was clearly visible as we made our way down the road.  Walking into the yard, we were greeted by Guermina’s mother.  Anita hugged her and I shook her hand.  There were staff members from the mission there helping out.  Mainly helping with the cooking and serving of food.  At any special occasion in Oaxaca,Mexico, whether it be a baptism, wedding or funeral, there is always the large tent, tables, chairs, and lots of food.

We went into the house of mourning, and there was the widow and her children, flowers, candles and an open casket.  Anita and I hugged Gueremina.  Anita hugged the daughters.  Anita told me that when you go to the house of mourning, you either bring white flowers or food or money, or all three.  We brought some money that I was supposed to give to the widow when offering condolences.  I forgot.  After Anita looked in the casket, we went out of the house and sat at one of the tables under the tent.  Enrique, the mission’s prison minister, who also lives a short distant from the bereaved, brought us bread and hot chocolate, a standard at all Oaxacan “events”.  It was then that I realized I had forgotten to give the money to Gueremina.  I told Anita.  She wasn’t pleased.

We ate a bit of our bread and drank our chocolate.  They had also brought us some beef soup.  At these events they always give you more than you can eat, and knowing that they also thoughtfully provide “doggie bags”; plastic bags that you can put the uneaten portions in.  At wedding celebrations they often supply buckets since they give you so much.  After putting our bread and soup in bags, we made our way back into the house of mourning to say goodbye and to give me a chance to give the widow our humble gift.

Ian and Elaine are workers at the mission.  They are from Canada and have been there longer than any other North Americans.  They were the ones that initially hired Anita and Gueremina as cooks, and Elaine was especially close to Gueremina.  They picked us up later that afternoon and drove us to the funeral.

We went across the highway that seperates Gueremina’s house from the little town of Tanivet, where Toto was to be buried.  There was a very long line of cars, trucks and taxi’s that made it’s way to Tanivet.  In Tanivet, the  procession stopped at Toto’s father’s house for a few minutes, and then continued down the street to a small Catholic church.  A band led the mourners, playing what seemed more like a lively polka than a dirge for the dead.  Family members and friends following behind, carried the casket on their shoulders .  The little church soon filled up, and a lot of people just waited outside.  Ian, Elaine, Anita and I found a place to stand at the back during the funeral service.

I didn’t understand everything the Priest said during the mass for the dead, but I know he mentioned sins and forgiveness a few times.  I think that is a good theme for a funeral service.  I think that is one reason why the writer of Ecclesiastes says that it is better to go to the house of mourning than a house of feasting.  Normally at a house of feasting, at a party, you have fun, get full and go home.  What goes on at a house of mourning is deeper, more significant,   At the house of mourning, or a funeral, you are more apt to think about your own eventual demise.  You think about the meaning of life and your purpose on this planet.  You think about sins and forgiveness and getting into heaven and what is required.  A Christian’s thoughts, I think, turn toward the work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection and what was accomplished by those deeds.  A Christian puts his or her faith in the atoning work of Jesus for salvation from the power of Sin, and for forgiveness of sins.  A Christian can celebrate the death of a loved one who has put their trust in God for eternal life, knowing that that loved one is in the immediate presence of Jesus, and is happier now than at any point in their existence this side of paradise.  A Christian can look forward to the day when their body is in the casket, but their soul is with Christ.

After the funeral service we walked about a mile down a long, dusty road to the cemetery.  Everything got a little crazy as we got to the cemetery.  Three taxi drivers were honking their taxi’s horns.  There was a mound of dirt beside the grave.  Young men drinking beer and smoking cigarettes were close to the hole.  I looked around and saw older men standing behind the  scene, filling plastic cups with mescal, strong drink like tequila.  Some people had tears in their eyes, others had smiles on their faces, and others simply looked about with a kind of oblivious, blank stare.  A grief stricken daughter started screaming for her papa, and had to be restrained by family members.  As the casket got closer to the hole in the ground, Gueremina’s tears flowed freer than I had seen before.  The family had trouble taking their place beside the grave since such a crowd was pressed in, wanting a good view.  Those carrying the casket set it on some ropes on top of the mound of dirt beside the grave.  At this point the priest and people shushed the band to quiet down.  The priest said a few words, and then a few of the drunken men tried to speak some nice words about Toto.  Then the casket was precariously lifted up by men holding on to the ropes, and slowly lowered into the hole.  One of the men put a six-pack of beer in the grave.  Another person handed Gueremina a large, clear, plastic bag full of Toto’s clothes; and then another one, ostensibly to accompany him into the great beyond.  Finally an uncle started shoveling dirt into the grave site, and then the son grabbed a shovel and added a few shovel fulls.  People close to the grave dropped handfuls of dirt on the casket.

At last it was over, and people began making their way back to their cars; some staggering and being helped by friends.  Ian had gone back early for the car and drove it close to the cemetery, for which  we were all grateful, for two reasons.  One, so that we didn’t have to make the long trek back into town on foot, and two, so that we could be out of there before the intoxicated men got behind the wheels.

On the way back to the mission I pondered my time spent at the house of mourning.  Death slaps us in the face – especially the sudden death of a relatively young man.  It reminds us of our earthly mortality,  How do we deal with that?  Some people try to drown the certainty of death with alcohol or drugs.  Others bury themselves in work or good works, hoping to make it to heaven by their own merit.  Others are confident that God loves them and wants them to be happy, and has taken away the sting of death with a true and sure promise of an eternity of enjoying God.

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The resurrection of Christ has determined our existence for all time  and eternity.  We do not merely live out our length of days and then have the hope of resurrection as an addendum; rather, as Paul makes plain, Christ’s resurrection has set in motion a chain of inexorable events that absolutely determines our present and our future.  Christ is the firstfruits of those who are his, who will be raised at his coming.  That ought both to reform the way we currently live and to reshape  our worship into seasons of unbridled rejoicing.           Gordon D. Fee in The First Epistle to the Corinthians

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