Mexican Catholics hold a velatorio during which they pray the Rosary while viewing the body.
Mexican Catholics hold a velatorio during which they pray the Rosary while viewing the body.

When Alejandro Gonzales died three years ago, the family struggled with reconciling the Roman Catholic etiquette of burying the dead with indigenous traditions, which remain an intricate part of Mexican and Mexican-American traditions. The family wanted the viewing, rosary and the service; however, there was one nuance to the funeral tradition: Gonzales requested his family spread his ashes on his favorite hunting ground in Northern Arizona.

Mexicans and the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has maintained a strong presence within Mexico and with Mexican-Americans dating back to the 1500s when Hernán Cortéz came to the New World with Spanish missionaries. Just as in the United States, Mexico is diverse in race and culture, but mestizos -- of mixed European and Indigenous blood -- remain the largest minority in both countries. In Mexico alone, approximately 90 percent of the mestizo population affiliates itself with the Roman Catholic Church. Out of the 41.3 million Latinos in the United States, 70 percent are affiliated with the church.

Roman Catholic Funerals

Since that time, the indigenous population adopted many of the funeral traditions practiced by all Catholics. Bishop Michael Pfeifer of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo explains that when someone dies, Roman Catholic families come together to pray over the deceased's body and determine an open- or closed-casket viewing of the deceased, which occurs the day before the Mass and burial. The services take place at a funeral home or in the church.

During the Mass, family members present stories, videos and pictures, and at the cemetary, the priest ends with a presentation and prayer. As the casket is lowered into the ground, family and friends throw a small handful of dirt onto the coffin to finalize the deceased's journey and resurrection. After the services, family and friends gather for food, drinks and to honor the memory of the individual.

Differences

Within the Roman Catholic traditions, the Mexican and Mexican-American cultures provide burial tradition nuances. For example, as Pfeifer notes, instead of having a viewing at the church or funeral home, families hold a "velatorio" during which families place the body in a glass casket, so they can view the body while praying the rosary. They also spend more nights with the body than the standard -- up to 48 hours. Additionally, the Mass and burial contain differences. "There is a much more personal connection," Pfeifer explains. "Families spend more time presenting and bury a lot more personal items with the deceased than standard."

While most Roman Catholics take more time to set a funeral date, Mexicans, particularly in Mexico, bury loved ones right after the velatorio because they depend less on embalming. They also have "novenas," or nine days of Masses after the burial where family and friends continue to pray. The final farewell Mass can take several months and consists of a fiesta.

Day of the Dead

Another tradition of Mexican and Mexican-Americans that celebrates the life and death of a loved one is Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of The Dead. On November 2nd of every year, families gather together to celebrate the lives of the deceased by dressing in unique costumes, posting images and photos, holding candle vigils and eating a meal beside the grave. The meal is a way to hold communion with loved ones. Although the costumes may appear gruesome to some people, each one tells a story that celebrates the beauty of life after death.