Like many Catholic families with roots in other nations, the Ibarras' funeral customs combined their faith heritage with culturally-rich ceremonies facing death head-on. When Maria Ibarra, a widowed mother of four, died of a heart attack, family, church and community swung into action to provide a meaningful funeral.
Maria and three of her four children were active at St. Polycarp Church, only six blocks from the Ibarra family home. Father Nelson buried Maria's husband, Carlos, only three years earlier and had become like a member of the Ibarra family. He had visited Maria and her children in the hospital just four days before she died, administering the Church's Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Maria told Father Nelson and her children, "Estoy listo para ir donde Dios" ("I am ready now to go to God.")
Maria's funeral was a real community event, not because so many people attended but because the services reflected her faith and her ethnic heritage. Two ladies from St. Polycarp's bereavement committee visited Maria's home the afternoon of her death. They brought food that had been prepared by others in the parish, of course, but the real reason for their visit was to remind Maria's family that their church community wanted to walk with them through the difficult days ahead. They helped Maria's children select music and scripture readings for the funeral mass and they talked about the Vigil service that would be held at the funeral home the night before the funeral mass.
Calling hours (sometimes called a visitation or viewing) were held on Tuesday afternoon and evening after Maria's Sunday afternoon death. At 7pm, Sister Hortensia, the pastoral care associate at St. Polycarp led the family and friends in a brief Vigil service that included prayers, scripture readings, and an opportunity for anyone present to share a favorite memory of Maria; about 15 people spoke of her life, her faith, her love of family, and her secret tamale recipe that no one had ever been able to imitate!
Maria's funeral liturgy (funeral mass) on Wednesday morning reflected the richness of Maria's life. Robert, Maria's oldest grandson who was a soloist in his college choir sang Ave Maria and Be Not Afraid, two of Maria's favorite songs. Maria's own siblings took turns reading the scriptures from the Old Testament and St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. And in honor of Maria's native language and the large number of participants with greater familiarity with Spanish, each text was read first in English by one of Maria's sisters and then read in Spanish by one of her brothers. Maria's beloved choir in which she had sung for more than 20 years sang at the funeral mass.
A few of Maria's friends who were not Catholic wondered how they would fit in, and were most intrigued by the custom of waiting outside the church until Father Nelson arrived at the door for the "Reception of the Body." Father Nelson greeted the family and friends with the familiar words, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all," and the people responded, "And also with you." After the casket was sprinkled with holy water, the funeral directors helped Maria's daughters and sons place the pall, a large white linen drape, over their mother's casket. Sue, one of Maria's neighbors said that though she had never attended a Catholic funeral before, she found Maria's funeral mass to be an incredible spiritual experience and reported that she left feeling comforted in her sadness and closer to God.
Maria was buried next to her beloved husband in the local Catholic cemetery following a brief service at the graveside called the Rite of Committal. Father Nelson shared a verse from the Bible and led the people in several prayers. After the concluding prayer, the choir from St. Polycarp led the family and friends in singing one of Maria's favorite hymns, Amazing Grace.
For Maria's family, the ceremonies in which they participated did not end with her burial. Eight months later on November 2, the family joined with several other families in their neighborhood to observe Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. After attending a street festival in Los Banos, their city's Mexican district, the Ibarras gathered at the cemetery and placed traditional yellow marigolds on the graves of Maria and Carlos. Two weeks later, St. Polycarp held its annual memorial mass on Sunday afternoon, and the entire local Ibarra clan was there-to remember Maria and her legacy in their family.
After the memorial mass, Maria and Carlos' oldest daughter, Christina said, "I think I can face the holidays now. I'm sure not 'over' their deaths yet, but this has helped me remember what a history they gave us-love, hard work, family, and faith."
While the Ibarra family represents common themes in Mexican heritage and Catholic belief for acknowledging death, it is by no means the only way. The following resources will be helpful to you as you continue to learn about these customs.
- Brandes, S. (2007). Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Champlin, J. M. (1990). Through Death to Life: Preparing to Celebrate the Funeral Mass. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.
- Davis, K. J. (2006). Dead Reckoning or Reckoning with the Dead: Hispanic Catholic Funeral Customs. Liturgy, 21 (1), 21-27.
- Order of Christian Funerals (Study Edition) (1990). Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications.
- Rutherford, R. & Barr, T. (1990). The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.