Early Death Rituals in New Mexico

A New Mexico funeral vigil.

Church bells rang throughout the small villages and towns in New Mexico to alert the community of the death of one of its members. Men had the task of ringing the bells. They tolled in sequence: nine times for a man, six for a woman and three times if a child had died. If an infant died the bells did not toll but rang out joyously. The belief then for a baptized child automatically granted eternal life heaven. The printing of leaflets announcing the death of someone kept people informed. In fact, most of these villages lacked telephones and a daily newspaper. The U.S. Postal services handled the distribution of the death announcements to relatives in far off places. 

Cleansing Ritual

The women had the important task of caring for the remains of the dead. The ritual of bathing, dressing and organizing the wake took place in the homes of the deceased. The use of vinegar in the bathing process worked as a form of preservation. In many of the isolated villages electricity was sparse or nonexistent. Expediency in caring for the dead was of upmost importance to minimize the decaying process.

The Essence of Time

It was also customary for the men to build the coffin, rearrange the furniture in the house to accommodate the casket in preparation for the wake, cut wood to heat the house and dig the grave. For the other women of the community not involved in the preparation of the body they returned to their homes to prepare food for the dolientes (mourners) who would be stopping by to pay their respects. The most common food made for these occasions was an abundant array of chile dishes. During this era the colloquialism, “Chilorio Velorio” (chile wake) was borne into the vernacular of northern New Mexico.

Keeping Vigil

Family members sat vigil with the body through the night. Their prayers helped the deceased soul reach a higher attainment. The nightly vigil stemmed from an earlier belief that death did not occur at a single moment. Long before the advent of the stethoscope the body was pricked with needles to see if there was any response. As the living sat with the deceased through the night and no detection of life was present the family was assured that the person would not be buried alive.

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