On a recent vacation in a Mexican village, I was surprised to find myself in the midst of a community in mourning. Two days before I came, a 21-year-old girl had died in a car accident. Everyone in the town knew her and was openly affected by her death.
When I arrived from my long bus ride, I knew immediately something wasn’t right. There were rows of portable chairs lining the street and people were huddled around talking in somber tones. Others were waiting in line to view her body, displayed in a semi-public room surrounded by candles and religious icons.
The next day was similar to the first-people of all ages clustered together, moved around the square, and consoled one another. On the morning of the third day, there was a Mariachi band playing music, yet no one was dancing or singing as one is accustomed to witnessing. Instead, there were tears, hugs, and silent downward gazes.
As I passed the gathering, I couldn’t help being profoundly moved by this expression of communal mourning. I stopped in respect for their pain and put my hand over my heart to convey my sympathy. But at that moment, I found my body experiencing a cathartic release of sadness. Tears welled up in my eyes and streamed down my face. What was happening? I didn’t know the girl, nor had I a relationship with the village or any of the residents. Yet I found myself swept up in the grief and heartache of the community.
Was it their pain I was experiencing or my own? I felt an overwhelming soul connection to the heart of this village and my entire body was quivering with the sorrow of this small community. Several strong men lifted the casket from the display room and carried it into the street. The Mariachis followed and played on while the townspeople trailed behind. I was mesmerized and found myself following the procession. At each intersection, the pall-bearers stood still, making sure everyone was included in the process. Everything seemed to stop and people came out of shops and homes to pay their respects. The casket was deftly handed over from one group of men to another as it continued along in procession.
In the midst of this event, I began to have doubt about my inclusion, but the looks on the faces of those welcomed me for me to bear witness. The event continued along the beach to the graveyard “Playa de los Muertos” and the festivities lasted into the evening with burial music, tamales, and eulogies at the ocean front gravesite.
I have since contemplated the power of public grieving such as I experienced in Mexico. I am reminded of our North American death customs, so less public and less ritualistic. To openly mourn in the public plaza and to share that grief with the entire community seems like a healthy and respectful way to honor life and death. For when we can cry all our tears, truly and thoroughly grieve and mourn-not just for lost lives-but for the wide spectrum of human disappointment and loss, only then can we fully know and celebrate the exquisite beauty and fullness of life.