Theresa and I had the great fortune to travel Ecuador in January. While there, as with any place we travel, we looked into some of the local funeral customs and practices. What struck me most about Ecuador, especially the Galapagos Islands, was the similarity between what they are doing now and what we did in the United States in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Our first stop in Ecuador was the capital of Quito. This city of over 2.7 million people is at an elevation of 9350 feet in the Andes Mountains. (Denver by contrast is at 5300 feet above sea level.) The majority of people are Roman Catholic, so there is very little cremation taking place. The country has tied its currency to the U.S. dollar for 15 years now, and their economy has done well during that time, avoiding some of the devastating inflation and currency fluctuations that have affected many South American countries. My observation was that the standard of living in Quito as well as the infrastructure of the city (modern airport, new multi-lane roadways) was superior to that of what we observed in Lima, Peru.
We had dinner with Ing. Augusto Martinez V., an American educated engineer, who has gotten involved with cemetery and funeral home development in Quito. A college friend was a child of an American funeral director, and he has gotten a lot of guidance from that direction. His operation, Santa Rosa, has extensive land which has given him the opportunity to set aside green space as well as develop ‘outside the box’ ideas such as a health club. Prearranging and prepaying one’s funeral is a new concept that Augusto is introducing to the city. While the cost is less than American funerals, Augusto pointed out that Ecuadorians are willing to pay a premium price for the better services and newer facilities that he could provide. The situation is much like Chicago in the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The old ‘mom and pop’ funeral homes struggled as larger, corporate facilities were built. We were at the forefront of that that trend in Quincy when, in 1965, Hansen-Spear built the first modern funeral home facility in the Tri-State area.
Funerals in the city involve embalming at the funeral home, a casket, a wake at the funeral home or the person’s own home, and ultimately a funeral at the church followed by earth burial. Being a large metropolitan area, most cemeteries are municipally owned. Both in Quito and Lima, there were no church yard cemeteries, but thousands of burial were made in the catacombs of the church itself. (We had hoped to visit the Church of San Francisco in Lima where it is estimated that the bones of 75,000 bodies are buried. Many are exposed with the bones stacked in a circular pattern.) Most churches no longer allow catacomb burials.
We also had the opportunity to visit about funeral customs on the Galapagos Islands with two of the expedition staff, Jairo and Dries, inhabitants of the islands. The Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of 18 major islands and several small islets, are located on the Equator approximately 600 miles West of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. They were made famous in Charles Darwin’s book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’, and by contributing to Darwin’s understanding of the “Origin of the Species”.
We were driving from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island to the El Manzanilla Tortoise Reserve to observe the giant Galapagos Tortoises when we drove by a well-kept cemetery along the road just outside of town. This brought about the discussion of what do inhabitants of the islands do. As recently as 1972 there were only 3500 inhabitants living on five of the islands. There are no funeral homes in either of the two ‘major’ cities, Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerzo Moreno.
At the time of death, the body is now taken to the local hospital where the embalming takes place. Once again, the cemeteries are municipally owned, so arrangements are made for the grave with the city which charges to dig the grave. At the port city of Puerto Ayora, the major cemetery is near the waterfront, so the bodies are entombed in personal mausoleums which can be simple or quite ornate. The casket is selected from a book and sent by air from the mainland to the airport in Baltra, and then transported either by road or boat to the final destination. This process used to be lengthier before the influx of tourism and more frequently scheduled air transportation.
After the body is placed in the casket, the wake is held at the family home or the church, followed by a mass at the church with final burial/entombment in the cemetery.
I drew the parallel in my mind to American funeral practices in the 1800’s, especially the rural Midwest and West. There were no funeral directors, and the casket was made upon demand by the local carpenter. The timing of the funeral service was and is dependent upon the arrival of the casket. The health care professional (modern day hospital or Western doctor) took care of the body. The family held the wake in its home before a service and burial were held from the church.
Most of the people we spoke with felt that there will be an increase in non-religious funeral services as time progresses. As in the United States, Ecuador is facing a secularization of its society which will result in less of a desire for church services. In that regard, Augusto is forward thinking in presenting these people with an option for memorialization in a non-church setting that is not easily obtained currently in Ecuador.