Saturday, January 19, 2008

Jesé


Someone died last night.

Not someone I knew terribly well, but he knew my wife well and was very dear to her best freind.

His name was Jesé, and we got a phone call at 2:30 AM with the news that he had passed. Evani saw him yesterday at the hospital, and he was unable to speak; unable to move even his eyes. We don't know why he died, but he had heart trouble and probably had had a stroke by the time Evani saw him. He was about 60.

What we do know is that he did not get any kind of emergency care, he lay waiting in a hospital bed for medical attention, in a public hospital that half the time doesn't even have a doctor on duty. They didn't when we were there this morning. This is what happens when you have universal health care, but not the funds to back it up.

Here in Bahia, and this may be true throughout Brazil, if someone dies they are buried the next day, almost without exception. There is no embalming, no planning a funeral and picking an appropriate date for it. I've tried explaining to Evani how it works in the States and our system is as much a mystery to her as theirs is to me. Actually, it's not: I think it's better here. I might not feel that way if someone close to me passed away and I was more than 24 hours travel time from there, but I think it's a better way.

I've been to more funerals and wakes here in Brazil in six years than I ever went to in my entire life previous to that. I've skipped as many others. It seems to me now, and even did at the time, that my father in particular was trying to keep me away from these events for some reason. When my grandmother died, he thought it best we not go to the memorial. When my great aunt died about 10 years later, who was in fact a good deal closer to me than my grandmother, he said the same thing. I guess he thought he was doing the right thing, but I'm not so sure.

When I was in high school, a kid a couple years younger than me died in a car accident. His family was Catholic, and they had an open casket funeral. At least, they opened it once, and they were supposed to open it again, but they decided not to. I guess they did this because of the gangs of teenagers hanging around wanting to look at the body- myself included. I think they should have let us see him; if everyone who dies is instantly whisked away and you have a memorial and that's the end, it's hard to really comprehend what's going on. Jesé's casket, like many I've seen here, had a little viewing window, his face was wreathed in flowers, and he had a strand of beads across his mouth. They brought his granddaughter, who looked about six, to see him.

Evani's seen death at very close hand all her life. Up until a couple years ago, groups of masked men would enter her neighborhood, smash down the door of a house with a known criminal inside, and said criminal was brought out and summarily executed. And left there, for the whole neighborhood to see. I'm sure she's been to dozens if not hundreds of funerals. When there are fatal car accidents, people are allowed to mill around and view the bodies.

Jesé was a Pai de Santo, a priest in the Candomblé. For the funeral, which I did not stay for, everyone wears white, not black. I was at his house for part of the wake, and they had a ceremony for him, which I could not be present at, since I am not initiated in the Candomblé. I waited in another part of the house with a large number of other people, some of whom were crying. A couple others had gone into trance, taking on the spirits of the Orixás. The future of Jesé's Terreiro, his church, is now in question. In the car from the hospital to the house I had both a Mãe de Santo (a priestess, literally 'Mother of the Saint') and another Pai de Santo in the car with me. They said that the house, which was undergoing an expansion, will close for a year and then the Filhos de Santos, his disciples, will have to determine how to carry on.

I liked Jesé quite a bit- he was almost always smiling and aside from seeing him at Candomblé ceremonies, we would also sometimes wind up in the same crowd for Carnaval or some other festival. He was a longtime member of the Filhos de Gandhi and I remember him showing up here once during Carnaval in full regalia, with two others simliarly outfitted with the turbans and the blue and white beads and the sandals, looking for Evani.

He will be missed.

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