Let me start by saying that I’ve had the displeasure of attending my fair share of funerals, but few things have touched me deeply as an Ecuadorian funeral. Subsequently, I’ve seldom been more mortified by the measures that must be taken to accommodate the departed.

On a Tuesday morning the service was to be held for my grandmother, who had been gravely ill long before my sojourn to Ecuador. I had been to visit her many times during the first month of my stay, in a little community by the name of Santa Rosa, inhabited almost exclusively by members of my extended host family. During my visits, only once had I seen her even so much as open her eyes, much less heard her speak or rise from her bed.

As we entered the town I felt as if it had been deserted, like something out of a John Wayne film, usually bustling with life: people beginning their work day, children on the way to school. The town was utterly silent. Even the dogs seemed sobered by what was to take place that day, walking toward the church, sun at my back, a swift breeze casting dust into the air. The church bells began to sound, in their brassy, resonating tone, and the dogs howled along with them, a haunting melody, which certainly did nothing to lift the air of sadness that had seemingly befallen the town.

Upon entering the church I was stricken by the almost palpable sorrow that saturated the small sanctuary, a chill shot down my spine as I felt the icy cold hand that was sadness place itself on my shoulder, refusing to be removed. I found my seat on the pew, beside my host family, and I prepeared to watch the proceedings. Complete and utter silence, like that of a night in the dead of winter, no one whispered, babies didn’t cry, children didn’t play or bicker. Just silence. The preist stood before the congregation, and began to sing, and the congregation followed suit, singing in unison songs that everyone knew word for word and sang wholeheartedly. When I had attended funerals in the past, it seemed, that many people were there simply to show their faces and didn’t really know the departed. Here, I got the sense that no one was in that church for such reasons, that every single person in that room had been touched by this woman in some way, each one expressed genuine bereavement. And everyone, from children to the elderly, from the daintiest of women to the burliest of men, shed tears for their fallen comrade. Even I, touched by the shear purity of the grief these people expressed, wept silently.

As the priest sprinkled the last drops of holy water on the casket, the congregation proceeded to exit the church and walk up the hill to the highest point of town — the cemetery. Flowers in hand, we followed the pallbearers, who were led by the priest. Once we reached cemetery, there was a great deal of waiting, as people crowded around what differed greatly from what I had pictured when thinking of a grave.  Imagine a dresser with 4 drawers, each holding a casket, the entrance covered with cement marked with the name and year of their death.  I observed the pallbearers still standing with the casket for quite some time. I wondered why were people gathered around these graves paying almost no attention to the casket? I moved closer to figure this out. What I saw was a man with a hammer, breaking the wall of one of the graves. But, wait: hadn’t all these graves been marked? Almost as soon as I came to this realization did the man destroy the wall, revealing a casket. I uttered a curse as I realized with horror what was about to happen. Men of the congregation proceeded to assist the man in removing the casket from its resting place, pitted and covered in rust. They slid the casket to the ground. Upon opening it, the acrid odor of decay filled the air. There lay the skeleton of a man, almost completely decomposed, almost. Only after they removed the casket did they place the other one beside it, and begin dismantling the skeleton with the sickening cracks of brittle bones, and ligaments not yet decayed. Piece by piece into the casket of my grandmother. I stood paralyzed with revulsion at the desecration of this man’s resting place. It was like a trainwreck, terrible and ghastly. But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. I was forced to douse the fire that was anger that burned within me. I had to take a step back and realize that despite my feelings, this was necessary, macabre and grisly, but necessary, because in a cemetery with extremely limited space, there may be no other options, or the fact that individual graves can be so costly.

Despite this unsightly blemish on the face of an otherwise revealing day, full of experience, I was glad for everything I’d seen that day, because for me life is all about experience, whether they be good or bad. And the end of the day, I was truly happy to be amongst the Ecuadorian people, and realized how fortunate I was to be given an opportunity to learn from them.