From Alabama to Colombia: A Death in Colombia

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From Alabama to Colombia: A Death in Colombia

The albino girl placed her bow on the violin. The blind girl cleared her throat. They sang. Lovely close harmony filled the Catedral de San Martín de Tours. One entire wall of the cathedral had been removed as part of an ongoing restoration, and filtered sunlight poured in over many of the bereaved, who sat in black clothes on hard wooden pews. A vast sheet of plastic meant to keep out the elements (and the pigeons) shifted in the wind, and the holy place seemed to give a series of deep sighs.

The wooden coffin at the front of the cathedral held the remains of Maria del Carmen Camargo de Castillo, the grandmother of Adela, my fiancée. People knew Maria as Maruja.

On a bright morning just two days prior, the 88-year-old woke in good cheer, ate breakfast, then settled into the normal Sunday routine of Sogamoso, her lifelong hometown. She heard horns of passing taxis. A black puppy played at her feet.

About noon, she felt ill. A grandson sped her to the hospital. Her heart and lungs—she needed oxygen in everyday life, the result of long years of smoking—failed to meet the challenge. Doctors brought her back once from cardiac arrest, but the second time her heart stopped, it didn’t start again.

Now, Tuesday morning at the cathedral, one daughter (Adela’s mother, Luz) and four sons and their extended families filled the front pews, with dozens of friends and acquaintances on hand to pay respects. The deceased had many companions—the word comes from comme, French for “with,” and pain, “bread.” Companions are those with whom you share bread. For many years, Maruja operated a panadería, a bakery, in the front of her home, not far from the main street of Sogamoso.

The songs in the cathedral ended. A priest rose and spoke. Family members shared emotional remembrances. The congregation gave an offering. Holy Communion brought lines to the altar. Then the moment arrived, and sons and relatives rolled Maruja’s casket out of the cathedral and into the bright morning.

It’s called the City of the Sun. Sogamoso is a dusty pueblo of about 100,000 in scenic Boyacá, one of the Colombian states to the north of Bogotá, the capital.

In Sogamoso’s palm-shaded town plaza, directly in front of the yellow cathedral’s front doors (and partly blocking the view), stands an imposing sculpture commemorating the native people of the region, the Muiscas, and their own faith. The enormous metal artwork features naked figures worshipping a gigantic sun emblem.

The blood of sun worshippers ran in the veins of Maruja, and it runs in Luz, Adela, and other family members.

The hearse with Maruja’s body rolled slowly past this vast monument to Boyacá’s pagan history. It rocked through uneven streets past the funeral home, Funeraria Orduz, where we first stopped Sunday night on our hasty drive from Bogotá to, we had hoped, the bedside of our stricken loved one.

Instead, a heavy-hearted family met uncomfortably at the funeral home, a place with waiting coffins stacked four-deep along the basement walls. As we made arrangements, a food truck operated cheerfully, absurdly, across the street, serving massive foot-long—maybe meter-long—perros calientes, or hot dogs.

The hearse cruised past a combination parking lot/laundry next door to the funeral home. It eased by Floristería Petalos y Rosas, one of several flower shops located near the home—those flower people clearly know their market. Other vehicles joined the cortege with Maruja’s family and friends, their cars identified by large floral wreaths on the roofs. At any speed faster than an old lady with a cane, the wreaths blew off, strewing white roses and crumbles of Styrofoam.

Adela drove our car. I rode shotgun, and Ana Maria, our little Cri du Chat child, rocked placidly—the picture of untroubled innocence—in the back seat as a salsa tune jumped from the radio. We brought up the rear of the funeral train. By the time we reached the graveside, Hail Mary’s already filled the air.

I thought, of course, of burying my own. Don’t we all, on the sad day that somebody’s loved one leaves the sunlight forever?

We didn’t see the sun the day we buried my granddaddy McNair in Troy, Alabama. The hardest storm I ever endured, needles of icy rain, washed away the service after the briefest words.

I never knew my daddy’s mother. She died when something inside her head burst in the parlor of my daddy’s home when he was just 12. At the most vulnerable formative moment of his life, my daddy watched his own father cry “Mary! Mary!” as he rubbed the wrist of a corpse that had been his wife minutes before.

My mother’s father, Bill McCrory, lies at peace in Dothan. My grandmother, Dee, lies beside him. They were the best grandparents in the history of this world.

Not too many years ago, the family stood forlornly around yet another hole in the red dirt of south Alabama as they slowly swung down Charles Cunningham McNair, my namesake. My father. A preacher who didn’t really know daddy said a few obligatory words. The family ambled away to our cars, and then away to our lives.

A backhoe motored toward daddy’s open grave as we left the cemetery.

In Colombia, the gravediggers stood with the family.

As first prayers finished, while the family waited and watched, the gravediggers briskly muscled dark earth onto the coffin. The dirt hitting the wood made a distinctive noise.

The hole filled, first slowly, then all too fast.

Once the grave was no longer a grave, mourners placed the funeral wreaths that rode their cars and that decorated the cathedral during services. They completely covered the bare earth, and the smell of flowers replaced the smell of soil. A little mountain of red and white and yellow blossoms rose among the greener mountains of the Colombian countryside.

The mourners repeated Hail Mary’s, many of them, a litany of prayers for us sinners, now and at the hours of our deaths. We would hear many more Hail Mary’s in days to come, as relatives hosted in Maruja’s house a series of novenas to pray for her departed soul. Each night, they placed a glass of fresh water on the table alongside the candles and religious images (a picture of Virgin Mary, a crucifix, a trinity). Maruja’s thirsty soul would be able to drink as she visited the room.

Graveside, the service ended. A life was over. Sunlight dazzled tear-filled eyes.

The albino girl and the blind girl tuned up again. Their paired voices brought to mind the harmonies … then the lyrics … to a song, “Ode To My Family,” by the Irish alt-indie group, The Cranberries.

My mother, my mother,
She hold me, she hold me, when I was out there.
My father, my father,
He liked me, oh, he liked me.

Does anyone care?

The answer was yes in Sogamoso. They cared until the end, and then they still cared.

Photo: Andrew Miller, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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