Funerals in Brazil: a Time of Mourning and Unity

Brazil is a tropical country in South America with some strong Catholic and Portuguese traditions, but also heavily influenced by the high humidity and temperatures it faces during most of the year. For example, funerals tend to last only two days. After that, the corpse may start to decompose, leaving a not very pleasant smell. It is much more common for people to opt to be buried, instead of cremated, although environmental and economic factors and diminishing religiosity is starting to make cremation a more desirable option.

The Velório

            Funeral rites begin in a casa de velório, (house of wake), where the velório (wake) takes place, however, sometimes it can place in the deceased’s house. It consists of laying the coffin open (if possible) on a table at the center of a room, where relatives and friends gather around and share in the pain and mourning. Individual flowers and bouquets are not very common, but it is usual to buy the so-called coroas de flores (flower crowns): large circular or elliptical flower arrangements, normally adorned with homage or the name of whoever bought it. At least one of those tends to be buried with the coffin later on.

            Brazilian funerals tend to have many people crying and suffering, but also remembering the person’s life and talking about it. There may be some collective prayers if the deceased or its family is very religious, and some people closer to them may pay homage to a speech or song. Sometimes a mass takes place or a church choir sings in it if so desired by all parts. It is a very delicate moment, and sometimes the only moment where people that live far away come to see relatives and friends they hadn’t seen in a while.

            It is not a very formal event. People tend to dress nicely, but don’t opt for wearing suits or any formal attire. When they hear about the death of a relative or friend, they just stop what they are doing and get ready to go to the funeral, wherever they are. If they can’t arrive on time, they may arrive later on and talk with the people closest to the deceased. However, when possible, the deceased is buried in any formal attire they have.

            There rarely is anything to eat, except for what is offered by the casa de velório (like coffee, tea and some snacks – normally cookies and biscuits) and what is sold nearby. Sometimes there are snack stands close to it, commonly selling chips, candies and salgados (pastry with many options of stuffing that is either fried or roasted, such as the coxinha). When eating, however, it is best to do so outside the room where the coffin is. Too often some people may refuse to eat altogether. In that case, people either bring them something to eat or try to convince them to get a proper meal.

            During the night, it is traditional for some people, especially the ones more intimate to the one who died, to stay in the room during the night, a ritual called vigília (vigil). A tradition from the times before there were corpse preparations, where some people would keep watch in case the person wasn’t really dead. Unfortunately, most casas de velório do not offer proper furniture to sleep on, so if they opt to sleep, they can only do so in the sofas and chairs that the rooms normally have, neither there is infrastructure to provide them with food during the night.

The Burial

            When the time comes for the burial, either the coffin is hauled by the pallbearers to the burial spot, or the funeral services haul it with a cart. If the velório took place somewhere too far from the cemetery where it would be buried, it is put inside a hearse and hauled to the cemetery. In any case, it usual to accompany its hauling, which normally is done slowly so that people are able to do so. While in traffic, other cars may give way for the hearse to pass, as a way of paying respects to the deceased, even though they don’t know who it is.

            Arriving at its spot, people gather to watch it being put into its burial pit. It is usual to leave before it is fully covered, as it takes a long time. Some may opt to stay, however.

            The tombs tend to be simple, sometimes with no tombstone or even any marker of who was buried there, as it depends on the family’s ability to pay for that. People of higher income class may opt for a granite covering, statues, or even some small “mausoleums” on top of their tomb. Sometimes whole families may be buried inside the same tomb or a pair of neighboring tombs.

The Mourning

            After the burial, it is common for people to help whoever was dependent on the deceased, such as doing chores and helping with the after-death bureaucracy, such as inventory, talking with lawyers, and such. That may end up into a long-term arrangement if it needs to be, such as adopting their children.

            Families of religious background, especially Catholic, traditionally arrange with the local church for holding a mass to the deceased on the seventh day of their death (Missa de Sétimo Dia), then at the anniversary of one month, and finally of one year. These masses tend to be collective, that is, other people who had their anniversary of death on the same day may be homaged at the same time, and public, so anyone may attend, even if they have no relation to the deceased.

            All in all, the Brazilian funeral is a time of mourning and suffering. People tend to unleash all their emotions in those two days, which may lead to some unhealthy behaviors, such as refusing to eat and to sleep. Thankfully, a lot of people are there to help them and to calm them down. And everyone is ready to drop what they are doing and come to it, and put themselves at disposal for what others need at the time and afterward.

Velório of Brazilian former Senator Lindberg Cury. Photo: Pedro Ventura /Agência Brasília.

This is a guest post by Tarcisio Ladeia de Oliveira

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