Dying in Costa Rica

Ξ July 1st, 2005 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Costa Rica |

Sadly, Maria Luisa’s surprise compromiso (engagement) was dampened Tuesday by the death of her dad at age 97. His liver, and eventually other organs started to malfunction in Tuesday evening and within a few hours he was gone. ML is of course very sad.

But, dying is different here. Living is too of course, but one thing that really stands out is the death process. It stands out because so much is needless and for the process itself.

Her dad lived in Guapiles and as with many compasinos (country folks), did not have a car, nor did any of the family. When he began to suffer, he was taken to the nearest CAJA (kind of social security) hospital for treatment. These rural hospitals can handle many things, but not the complicated and rapid breakdown of the organs in a 97 year old man.

Sixty miles away is Calderon Guardia, a major CAJA hospital far better equipped to deal with this. Most likely, these problems could have been handled. ML has worked there for 30 years and knows, as do I, that all we needed to do was to GET him there. To transfer between these two hospitals should have been quick, but as anyone who lives in Costa Rica is painfully aware, the “process” steps in. Hours went by as approvals for the transfer were sought. The old guy couldn’t wait… and was gone.

Now another process begins… the process of burial.

In many countries, after a person passes, the body is examined, an autopsy performed if nothing looks suspicious, a death certificate is issued, and the body is sent to a mortician who prepares the body for burial. Preparing involves the use of formaldehyde so decomposition is delayed.

A big shocker to most folks who move here is that the embalming of bodies is generally not done in Costa Rica! Not embalming a body, without getting too graphic here, means the burial clock starts ticking about 1 second after your heart stops ticking. The burial clock I refer to here is, of course, the nose clock.

Speed is of the essence.

When someone dies here, he or she is buried immediately… often within hours, and seldom more than 24 hours later.

In the USA, the relatives gather to make their preparations, notify other family members, place an obituary in the paper saying nice things, and giving the date and time for the service, if any, and the burial, if any often several days later. Although nobody gives this much thought, the root of this whole process is the embalming which allows for a somewhat less urgent agenda.

Remove the embalming part, and things have to move right along!

I saw first hand how this process works in Costa Rica.

The calls began notifying all of his passing. The family met at ML’s sister’s home which is stratigically located between the church and the cemetary. Services and burial were scheduled. Now the real process began.

The TV stations were notified. TV? Oh yeah.

Several times each day, on Costa Rican TV stations, the shows and the ads stop, soft music begins to play, and the obituaries (not much detail) begin to scroll. In homes, restaurants, bars…everywhere there is a TV, you will see people begin to watch the screen. This is where many of the non-immediate family learn of a death. Names and funeral arrangements.

One call from a co-worker at ML’s hospital and another network began operation.

Incredibly, this man passed at about midnight and was buried the next morning at noon. There was music, viewing, a church service… the works… and more incredibly, all her family plus another hundred people for the ceremony! In 12 hours.

A note about these funerals. They are ROUGH!

In the USA for example, wives, husbands, children, close relatives and friends have a few days to compose themselves and deal with the loss.

Not here.

The loss is really fresh… just hours old… and the grieving is painful to watch. I have had the sad experience to be at three funerals since I moved here, and all of them were emotionally wrenching even though I was not very close to any of the deceased. Sadly, I did not know ML’s dad very well either.

This grieving is not for show… families are very close here, and this process forces an almost immediate closure.

It is tough to watch.


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