A Brazilian Funeral…

ZeZé `s funeral

Funerals – and especially funerals in Brazil have had a passing mention before in my blog, but we have had a funeral closer to home this last week. Fatima`s mum, who was 84, died early on Thursday morning. She had been a bed-ridden invalid for quite some time now, suffering the great indignities associated with that state, so, in truth, her passing released her from a life with little quality to it on a day to day basis.

Her name was José-Maria and, whether it is a female José or a male José, the commonly accepted appellation was always ZeZé (pronounced zare-zare as in bare-bare).

So, ZeZé had had a stroke about four years ago and because she had been in the house alone at the time, she had suffered a lot of damage before being discovered, collapsed on the floor. She had lost her ability to speak, most of which unfortunately stayed lost, despite speech therapy, and she had lost most of her right-side mobility too, which had improved slightly with physiotherapy.

Then two years ago she had had a slight fall and, though she appeared to land lightly, she nevertheless broke her femur. At first, the health system in Brazil more or less wrote her off and it was only after some fairly robust complaining by Fatima that they managed to find her a hospital that would mend her broken leg, having to boost her anaemic state first. Since then she has needed a wheelchair to be moved around.

I may have mentioned this before, but the health service rules as they apply here in Brazil, mean that if you are over 65 and in hospital you have to have a relative (or it can be a friend) stay with you ALL THE TIME. This, of course, saves the health service a huge cost of what I think we would call auxiliary services because the feeding and other hygiene requirements are catered for by the family member(s). At the time Fatima was still working, so this added to the stresses of family life here.

When she could come out of hospital, we found a place in an old folks` home for ZeZé. Then, when Fatima was going to be in the UK for a longer period last year, one of her cousins agreed to take on the burden of looking after ZeZé for a modest consideration. And, finally when Fatima came back to Brazil before Christmas, we took back the task of looking after her – but ZeZé`s health had been gradually declining over this long period, with senility setting in as well. And, for the last few weeks, it had become a challenge as she was now hardly eating or drinking. Clearly “not drinking” in the heat of Brazil`s summer is not conducive to good health and so we had had to take her to hospital a few times where they boosted her up with glucose drips and the like.

What they did not pick up, just over a week ago on the last hospital visit (and they should have done, but the final outcome may only have been delayed a very short while even if they had!) was the fact that she had, by this time, started to suffer with pneumonia. So, on Wednesday evening, after a relatively quiet day for her, we took her into the local small hospital again in the early evening.

Sadly, despite everyone else there being as sweet as you like, the doctor who dealt with us looked at ZeZé, then at Fatima and said, “Hm. You again! Nothing much I can do here, she should be in an old folk`s home, where they can deal with her properly”. Fatima was, as you may expect, rather disturbed by this response and answered rather sharply – “You think if we could afford that on a full-time basis we would be here!?” “Well the hospital at Bacaxá is full,” he said, “so we`ll see what we can do”.

“If that`s the case,” said Fatima, “you had better give me a note to that effect and I will go and report it to the Minister of Health!” At which point Fatima came out to let me know that they were going to give her some glucose, as before, and I might as well go home for an hour and come back to pick them up when they had finished and she phoned me. So, that`s what I did, calling to fill the car`s tank up on the way home.

No sooner had I got home, three-minute`s-drive away, than Fatima phoned to say that as soon as she returned into the hospital it became clear that they had decided to transfer her to the larger hospital in Bacaxá, about an hour away, after all! The power of forthright speech and an underlying threat! The trip was interrupted about halfway with an unscheduled stop at the equally small hospital in Saquerama, apparently due to the fact that Zezé’s heart had stopped. She was resuscitated, intubated and supplied with oxygen and then the ambulance continued onwards to Bacaxá.

We then stayed there, while she was in intensive care, hoping for improvement, but not truly expecting such. And around 2a.m., as we were making the decision to come back home again and return to the hospital early on Thursday morning, the Bacaxá Doc came out with the news that she had died moments before. This Doc, by contrast, was a lovely man, with an excellent bedside manner, too, and very helpful with the necessary paper-work process. This took little more than half an hour – after which we did come home to prepare for the next stage. The funeral itself.

That part of the episode, by the way, reminded me of Spike Milligan, notably a hypochondriac, who apparently had these words inscribed on his headstone – “I told you I wasn`t well!” – a story I was able to relate to Fatima, for one of those sad, smiling, moments associated with death.

The Funeral

As you may know, in common with many other countries which are hot, the law here is that the funeral must take place within 24 hours of death. As pointed out by my cousin Pat, who has spent a lot of time in Paraguay, this is something of a double-edged sword, providing a sense of rapid ‘closure’, but also piling on the pressure of making the arrangements at extremely short notice.

Fatima has a ‘family plot’ at a delightful, well-run cemetery in São Gonçalo, and they have a multitude of “chapels” available to cater for multiple funerals if necessary. The health insurance covered all the associated costs and organisation details so very few phone calls were required to set the process in motion. And because everyone is aware of the legal requirements for speed, I guess most families have pretty efficient “telephone trees” to spread the news.

So, before 8a.m. on Thursday, we already knew the funeral would take place at 4p.m. at the Parque de Paz and, by the time we arrived there around 1p.m., ZeZé was already in the allotted chapel, in her coffin with the lid leant up against the wall. A major contrast to UK culture is that the deceased is presented to mourners to give their last respects, surrounded by flowers in the coffin, under a lacy cover. Of course, in UK, it is possible to visit a funeral home to see the deceased, but I think relatively few people choose to go for a “viewing” these days.

The phone tree worked well enough that a couple of carloads of ZeZé`s nephews, nieces and great-nephews and nieces had time to come from at least four hours` drive away from Fatima`s home-town of Macuco. And considerable family numbers were made up from more local relations and friends.

Dress code

The `dress code` for funerals is pretty informal here – it can be summed up by `smart-casual` I think. Jeans and a neat summer shirt seemed to be the majority expression for both male and female and muted colours were preponderant, plus some muted skirts and tops, or dresses for the ladies. For our particular funeral I don`t think there was one black tie present and I only saw two ties all afternoon in the whole area.

The chapels are in two rows of five and on Thursday there were four of our row of five in use, with funerals timed at quarter of an hour intervals. Each chapel is about 8 metres square, glass-fronted with partially frosted glass, and air conditioned. Outside the row of five, there is a three-metre-wide covered area with granite-covered seating all along the length of the row. So, as people are gathering, there is quite an assemblage building up. We were in Chapel B at 4 o`clock and Chapel A was due for 3.45 – so by 2.30 the overall noise level was building by several decibels per minute as relatives and friends greeted each other outside Chapels A & B – and to a lesser extent, Chapels C & D.

As you might anticipate there were tears and hugs as well as gossip and (mostly-controlled) laughter. I recall that many, many years ago my father made the comment that if you wanted a lot of people at your funeral it was “…best to die young.” On this basis, it seemed that the occupant of Chapel A was a much younger person than ZeZé, as there were perhaps nearly twice as many mourners there, of which the average age was considerably younger than for our Chapel B.

The strangest outlier from the dress-code was also associated with the Chapel A gathering and was represented by a young man with a dark grey, `Trump-style`, peaked cap, displaying the message “WHO THE F**K THIS?” Apart from the poor grammatical structure of the question, I must say it seemed somewhat out of place at a funeral, not least because, in the actual embroidered inscription, there were no asterisks.

Otherwise, ZeZé`s funeral was conducted with dignity. The coffin was then placed on the funeral version of an electric milk delivery float, or golf cart, and trundled around to the actual grave at walking pace. A light rain was falling so there were a few umbrellas keeping at least some of the mourners dry, and, of course, not everyone took part in the procession to the graveside. As the actual interment was taking place a group of four very noisy Brazilian lapwings were having a disagreement across the hillside of the Parque de Paz, untroubled by the human intrusion in their space.

Then we all made our way back home. Altogether, it was a pretty exhausting 48 hours, but we were left with the sensation that at least ZeZé was now at peace, her long, slow suffering curtailed.

RIP ZeZé.

About Keith Melton - Green Lib Dem

Retired English liberal environmentalist living in Nottinghamshire; spent six years in Brazil. Author of Historical Novel - Captain Cobbler: the Lincolnshire Uprising 1536. Active member of the Green Liberal Democrats - (pressure group in Liberal Democrats) - was Founding Chair of GLD in 1988
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