Danse Macabre

Catholic cultures have elaborate rituals for remembering their dead


Community Faith

Our neighborhood still has mail — mostly ads — hand-delivered by a robust man in his sixties with whom I occasionally chat. He’s an intelligent man whose astute and informative perspective makes for lively conversations. For three weeks, someone had replaced him. Yesterday, I was glad to see Joe was back.

“Joe, glad to see you’re still alive. Thought maybe COVID got you.”

“No, I’m fine. I just got back from my trip to Catalonia, Spain, where my dad died three days ago. I was there three weeks, but had to return here right after his funeral.”

“How old was he?”

“Eighty-two, appeared to be in good health. You’re eighty, right? He took walks just like you do daily, ate well, went to church regularly, confessed his sins, got the Last Rites, and died peacefully.”

“Tell me about him. What was his profession?”

“He was a medical doctor, practiced in Chile, and some other countries, then returned home to Spain, opening a practice in our home village for 12 years. Being the only physician for miles around, he knew everyone’s ills, and everyone adored him. Married three times, he sired five siblings with his last wife, my mother.”

“What did he die of, COVID?”

“Maybe. He could hardly breathe before he passed away. The official cause of death was hypothyroidism with loss of appetite and feeling chilled whenever he managed to eat.”

“He was a medical doctor and hadn’t self-diagnosed his condition?”

“It’s a stealth disease, like high blood pressure and cancer, showing few symptoms. He was too distracted, forever assisting others with their health problems. You’re 80 and look okay, but all of a sudden… you never know.”

“I’m sorry to hear of your loss,” I said, noticing Joe’s eyes glistening.

“I’m happy that I could say goodbye to him. Everybody in our village made an effort to pay their respects. Friends visited all day long. You should have seen his funeral.”

“Tell me about it.”

“The wake was a 24-hour extended family vigil with drinks and story-telling. We didn’t sleep at all, spent our time praying and singing as if to assure God that our loved one was a good man. We ate his favorite foods while reminiscing old times: all the good things he did, healing the poor who paid him with chicken eggs or raw goat’s milk. Funerals in Spain are so much more lively and intimate than here. The villagers streamed through to wish us well, telling of his good deeds that none could reveal until he’d died.”

“Why is that?”

“He practiced Christ’s saying to do good works in secret, to receive heaven’s rewards. Those who benefited from his free services could not tell anyone until he passed away.”

“I can see he had great faith. So, what about the funeral?”

“One of our family had organized the funeral when they saw he was failing. It was a long procession with the local priest at the head of it, winding its way to the cemetery. Mourners, all dressed in black, walked slowly behind the hearse into the local cemetery.”

His description reminded me of the famed Danse Macabre celebrated in Verges, Spain, when many street dancers dressed in black suits, tailored with luminescent skeletons, march in a macabre nighttime parade, scythes swung to the mournful sound of drums, in remembrance of the universality of death. The idea is to remind people of the fragility of our lives and the fleeting vainglories of worldly life. Day of the Dead in Mexico at Halloween has the same sobering theme: Death is nearer than you think.

Joe took a moment to dispense letters into my mailbox, then continued about the funeral.

“The men and women are segregated to opposite sides of the plot. Then, the chanting by the men invokes a response from the women… back and forth like a church chorale.”

“What do they chant?”

“Usually the Psalms and traditional hymns. It’s our way of alerting God that a worthy soul is on its way. After the priest said his requiem prayers, my siblings and I took a handful of dirt and, on passing by the open coffin, rubbed it on our father’s clothing. Dust to dust. Those who brought flowers laid them on his body, mourning, and weeping. You should have heard the women wail… heart wrenching. Brought tears to my eyes.”

His eyes glistened again.

“For nine days after daily Mass, when a loved one dies, his family prays the rosary in a group novena. On the fortieth day, the family prays the rosary again. But I had to leave, and couldn’t stay beyond the funeral.”

“Why for forty days?” I asked.

“After His being tried, judged, and persecuted for nine hours, Christ ascended 40 days after He rose from the dead.

“We remember our dead not just once but every year. On the anniversary of a death, we will do a novena with food, drink, lit candles, bouquets of flowers, and good memories.”

I could see my postman was anxiously inching away, to get his quota of deliveries done on time.

“Thanks, Joe, for taking a few minutes to share how you honored your father.”

“Let us keep this uppermost in mind: that we must die someday!” Then off he rushed.

What a contrast between the Spanish and our secularized funeral traditions and burial rituals. With Holy Week coming soon, local churches will have their slow, somber processions at the Stations of the Cross. Devotees mourn and weep for His crucifixion and death, until that poignant personal encounter with the Risen Christ on the way to their own Calvary.

You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy (John 16:20).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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