A Mexican novena for the dead is transformed for the digital age by Covid-19

I remember my first time attending a novena of prayers for the dead drawn from traditions of rural Mexico. The sense of community was palpable. Night after night, patio chairs were set up under plastic blue tarps. Trays of sweetbreads were passed around. Steaming tamales and cups of atole, corn beverage, were served from huge cooking pots. The smell of smoke from the campfire mingled with that of copal incense, sent from the village for the novena. It felt like Mexico, but took place in a trailer park in Newburgh, N.Y. The rezandera (traditional prayer leader) recited archaic, poetic orations in a mesmerizing, plaintive voice, interspersed with songs sung in a melancholy tone.

Since the prayers were called rosarios, rosaries, I had expected the usual groupings of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. However, I encountered a whole repertoire of prayers for the dead. When these families were displaced by the after-effects North American Free Trade Agreement (which gutted Mexico’s agricultural sector) and immigrated to the United States, they brought a rich cultural heritage with them.

Serving in a project for farm workers and immigrants in the Hudson River Valley—and visiting villages in Mexico they came from—I became familiar over the years with the power and depth of the novenas. More recently, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed these gatherings in which community members find strength and solace during times of loss and suffering. All over the world, as the pandemic continues, grieving families seek out ways to connect virtually: even those living in the same town or city cannot always gather in person. Here, in immigrant communities in New York State, I began to hear about online funerary services for binational families, made possible by digital technology.

I encountered a whole repertoire of prayers for the dead drawn from traditions of rural Mexico.

Disntinctions Between Grief and Mourning
With its many losses, the pandemic underscores the fundamental difference between grief and mourning.

Grief, psychologists explain, is an internal, visceral experience of sorrow. Grief is a punch to the gut, a ruthless wrenching of the heart. Grief is not being able to sleep at night, and during the day, sleepwalking. Grief is the blade of memory when a mother comes across socks in the laundry and has to remember, again, that her daughter is gone.

Mourning is different. Mourning is also wrenching, but it is a healthy part of bereavement. Mourning is an externalized expression of grief, channeled through cultural practices and social customs. The process will take years, as loved ones ultimately come to accept the loss, but these practices are crucial during the time immediately after a death. Pastoral agents know that adequate accompaniment—culturally attuned and spiritually sound—is key. Yet all Christians are called to pray for the dead, as a spiritual work of mercy. Mourning is an act of faith.

Novena prayers for the dead transform grief into mourning. Their intense spirituality of the Cross—and insistence on the importance of community—are particularly suited to our local Spanish-speaking immigrant community, which has suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. New technologies such as Zoom make them more accessible than ever before.

One community member, Diana Saguilán puts it this way: “I have reconnected with my faith because of the novenas during Covid.”

Grief is the blade of memory when a mother has to remember, again, that her daughter is gone.

While each Mexican state has its own customs, the mourning rites of Puebla are particularly beautiful. In isolated villages like Diana’s, which did not have a resident priest, lay prayer leaders, rezanderos, were expected to perform burial services. A memorial Mass would be arranged for 40 days after the burial. Passed down for generations, texts are based on the crucifixion narrative. Similar to the Viacrucis (and sharing some of its songs and prayers), participants relive Christ’s Passion. Although rezanderos may not have had much formal schooling, they work with material that is rich in theology and symbolism.

One rezandera, Romelia, explains how she found her calling. Born in the same village as Diana, Romelia was raised in Mexico City by a devout Catholic aunt. When she emigrated to New York State, she attended Spanish Mass at a local parish in Newburgh. One day, an acquaintance died suddenly. Until then, when Latin American community members died, their bodies were most often sent back to their country of origin for burial. But this time, New York was home to the deceased woman. Her husband and their American-born children were staying, and she was buried in the local cemetery. According to tradition, the novena was to be said here.

“No one was prepared,” remembers Romelia. “We came here young, we came to work. None of us had ever led a novena before. We weren’t sure we could do it.” They gathered fragments of prayers and songs from what they remembered. “The family was so grateful,” Romelia said. A couple of months later, when another community member died in an accident, the parish priest called her. Would she lead a novena? Romelia relates: “It was a matter of conscience. I thought: ‘How can I not do it? It’s my duty.’ Our elders taught us that a human being deserves the dignity of a novena and that it is an obligation we have to one another. I told the priest, ‘If no one else will do it, I will.’”

Romelia bought a notebook. During lengthy phone conversations with rezanderos in her home village, she wrote down prayers, songs and an outline of the format of the last night, the levantada or levantamiento de cruz (the elevation of the cross), which serves as the novena’s culmination.

Our elders taught us that a human being deserves the dignity of a novena and that it is an obligation we have to one another.

In rural Mexico, a full range of funerary tradition is possible. Villagers might stay up all night beside the body in vigil or walk in procession from the home to the graveyard—practices not usually feasible in the United States. There is a sense that the novena is done “right” in the village, with tactile creativity. For example, at one novena I attended, when the narrative tells of vinegar held to Christ’s lips during the crucifixion, participants went outside to take a sip of red wine.

In another practice, children fill a basket with flower petals in preparation for the last day, the levantada. One child holds a cross and walks backward in circles, while other children follow, showering it with petals. Once the cross is installed on the altar, the participants approach—often on their knees. They bestow a kiss or a caress on the cross and then, dipping a white carnation into a glass of holy water, sprinkle the cross in blessing.

Over the years, Romelia has prayed an abbreviated version of her village’s novena in the United States with dozens of Spanish-speaking families. Not all of the families are from her village in Mexico, or her home state, or even from Mexico itself. Some are grieving Latin American Catholic immigrants for whom the novena’s spirituality simply resonates.

One child holds a cross and walks backward in circles, while other children follow, showering it with petals.

Then the pandemic struck. People of color were affected disproportionately. Immigrants are overrepresented in the numbers of essential workers, and carried a greater share of the burden of the disease. Romelia has lost seven members of her family, not counting relatives by marriage. At the time community members most needed one another, mourners could not gather in person.

“The pandemic has brought about much isolation,” said Diana. “Not considering that many Mexican immigrants are already far from their home country and away from loved ones. Sadly, this isolation meant that communities felt they had to mourn alone.”

“Society keeps telling us to maintain social distance and to wash our hands constantly, to refrain from touch and stay at home,” Diana continued. “While these measures are necessary, they are very conflicting to a culture that embraces communal strength during hardships.”

Sadly, this isolation meant that communities felt they had to mourn alone.

Innovating an Archaic Prayer
Before the pandemic, FaceTime, Facebook Live, WhatsApp and other internet platforms had opened new channels of communication for people far away from loved ones. When a 25-year-old named Celeste from our community died, Diana, Romelia and I joined to accompany her family in a virtual novena. Celeste lived with her family in a tiny town in the Catskills where there were few other Latino families. Thanks to Zoom, we connected not only with Celeste’s family in the Catskills, but also with Celeste’s father’s brother and his family in California, their sister and another brother in the Mexican state of Michoacán and their aunt in Mexico City.

Our innovative adaptation of this archaic form was the kind of far-reaching, virtual prayer experience unique to this past year. Romelia, who by then had moved to Texas, gave specific instructions to me and Diana in New York on how to prepare for the novena. As part of these preparations, Diana and husband commissioned a cross to be made by a family in Newburgh, who themselves had lost three people to Covid. The cross would be used on the last night of the novena, and would remain at Celeste’s grave.

In the meantime, an earthen cross was fashioned on the floor in front of the home altar at Celeste’s home in the Catskills. In the instructions for the novena, the cross could be made of ash, sand or lime chalk. (“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”) Celeste’s cross was made of sand.

Every night for eight days during the novena, as Romelia led prayers from Texas on Zoom, Celeste’s mother sprinkled holy water on the sand cross on the floor in her home. The seed of Celeste’s eternal life had been planted at baptism; now it grew in fertile soil.

We transformed this archaic form into the kind of far-reaching, virtual prayer experience unique to this past year.

While the first eight days were completed virtually,the day of the levantada, the ninth and last day of the novena, called for in-person accompaniment for whoever was able to attend. Diana’s family picked up the wooden cross from the family in Newburgh and brought it to the service at Celeste’s home. Another family delivered the necessary white flowers, five white candles and two purple cloths. In order to keep indoor attendance under a 10-person maximum, the family left these items on the doorstep and sat in their parked car in the driveway, joining the Zoom call by cellphone.

The wooden cross was gently laid on the floor, next to the sand cross. The five white candles were placed around it: one at the head, another at each arm, one at the feet and one on the left side, for the heart. Both were covered with purple cloth. Romelia on Zoom recited prayers to atone for sins: sins committed by thought; sins committed by action, through the hands; sins of the feet, straying from the path; and finally the heart, the repository of actions and feelings, the sum totality of our lives.

As Romelia went through the prayers, Diana’s husband uncovered the purple cloth and raised the wooden extremity corresponding to the part of the body. Slowly elevated from its place on the floor, this cross was being raised, while simultaneously the sand cross was being swept up. At the same time that Romelia addressed the head, the hands, the feet and the heart, Diana drew back the other purple cloth, little by little; bit by bit, to gently gather up the sand. The heart was swept up last.

The seed of Celeste’s eternal life had been planted at baptism; now it grew in fertile soil.

During the levantada this sequence of blessing the cross and watering the seed ends. Its finality is bracing, but intensely spiritual: an encounter with Christ’s cross.

By the time the earthen cross is cleared—swept from the floor and deposited into a box—the wooden cross, which will be taken to the cemetery, is raised high, triumphant. This is Christ’s cross. Celeste’s suffering was subsumed into Jesus’ Passion, her life joined fully to his. In the village, this would have been the moment where each person took his or her place to venerate the cross. Romelia gave everyone present on Zoom a moment to make a sign of reverence. Diana and her husband, as the padrinos, the godparents, embraced the cross. She recounted later being surprised at the overwhelming emotions this evoked: grief and sadness, gratitude and peace. In a word, mourning.

 

From the first day of the novena to the last, Romelia says, there is a transformation. Family members—frozen by grief—slowly begin to pray again. There is an emerging sense of “giving permission” for the soul to depart. Anxiety on the part of the family is assuaged through appeals to release the soul from Purgatory. The family fulfills its duty to their loved ones, and the rest lies in God’s merciful hands. Social support serves as a safety net, catching families in the freefall of grief.

In the Catskills, the families drove in separate cars to the cemetery in the freezing cold. The cross and box of sand were left at Celeste’s grave. Completing the novena does not erase grief, but it opens a path to the long, arduous process of mourning. Prayers for the dead fuse us to Christ’s Passion. The works of mercy encourage solidarity and remind us that we belong to one another. The novena is one way that members of the church, the pilgrim church, bring our people home, and remind us all that love is eternal.