One of the most interesting things that I have learned in my service is how universal connections between human beings are. After 10 months in my new community I can proudly say that I feel like I am from here and that certain people in this area have accepted me not only as the “Americana” but as a daughter, niece, sister and friend. I feel like I've lived here my entire service. “Aplatanada” they say, which means I am one of them.
Family is number one in Dominican culture. Cousins who grow up together refer to each other as sister-cousins because calling each other cousins just doesn't quite describe the relationship accurately. You would be hard pressed to find a homeless Dominican outside of the large cities. Why? Because the people here take care of each other. They find places for the family members and friends to sleep and make a little extra food to make sure no one goes hungry.
Yesterday, La Red Guaconejo (my project) lost a close member of our family. Tita was the wife of the ex-president, Hilario, and both founding members of La Red, godparents of a close friend and leaders in their community.
Death in the rural areas of the DR is very different from American culture. As soon as the person dies (almost always in their house) the funeral begins. The house fills up with neighbors, family and friends to pay their respects. I mean inside, outside and in the street; people everywhere. Sometimes, the family will just leave the body in bed or laying on a table for viewing. In my personal observations here there is no shame in death, nor do people fear it. At first I thought it was disgusting that the body was just left in a bed but not only are there not many other options (Tita was in a casket with a window to see her face), but the rawness of the situation is what molds this culture to be fearless of death and gives them closure.
People pass through the room to say goodbye and then sit around for hours talking. It is customary for people to cry loudly, even scream, not holding back on showing their emotions. Plastic chairs are usually rented and it's common for about dozen of the family's closest friends to spend the night at the house. Since there are no embalming processes, the body is buried the next day. On this day the family of the deceased makes a huge feast (think food for 100+ people) for those who flock from near and far to show their support. After lunch there is a short mass and then everyone piles into pickup trucks for the procession to the cemetery. Goodbye music is played as the caravan parades through the nearby communities to the burial spot.
Once the deceased is buried (usually above ground) the process of los nueve dias, or the nine days of mourning begins. For nine consecutive days the house is totally open as a memorial to the deceased and many of the same people are there every day with the family, praying and remembering the life of their lost loved one. On the last day, the vela, which is the formal funeral prayer service, is held to close out the nine days of mourning. Attendees wear only black or white to show their respect.
In traditional cases, the anniversary of the death of that person is then remembered each month for two years. Once two years have passed the family is officially no longer mourning publicly.
Tita's funeral was really the first that I had been to here of someone who I knew. Being there with everyone gave me a sense of connectedness. These people take care of each other come hell or high water. Tita passed away from complications of advanced diabetes. She was in her early sixties. She can be seen in the trailer in this link at 1:05 sitting in front of the cocoa dryer right next to her house talking about the importance of development in her community. May she rest in peace.