Chouchou, or Why We Had My Brother-In-Law Cremated
If you’re poor and you die in the Dominican Republic, your body is typically displayed in your house for one day. People come to view you as you decompose in the humid heat until you absolutely must be buried. They pray over you and with your family, often for hours, to ensure your safe departure. For nine days afterwards, during a period called la novena, people visit your home and your family is expected to feed them as they pray and talk and socialize. When it is over, you must be openly mourned for at least six months. Your family members will be expected to wear black and abstain from festivities or open displays of joy lest they disrespect your memory.
On a day not too long ago, my sister and I sat in the bathroom together and talked about our grandfather’s funeral on the island. I was left behind in the Bronx and had never received full details. Franderis told me about how she cleaned blood off the floor near my grandfather’s bed while his body was set up in the entryway of his tiny pink and blue home. Our mother spent an extraordinary amount of money we didn’t have to fly to her hometown and buy food for la novena. While small snacks were the normal expectation among poorer communities, my grandmother insisted my mother pay for enough pounds of rice and meat and bread and desserts to feed the entire barrio and then some for the full nine days. Motorcyclists were hired to deliver heaping plates of food to far-off acquaintances. It was crucial, my grandmother insisted, that they knew that we knew that they were thinking of us.
My sister first did her best to perform grief, but eventually refused to continue. Even the smallest smile or a brief glimpse of an iPod prompted a glare from our grandmother, who threw herself completely into wearing dark clothes and projecting loud mournful prayers for the man she used to curse everyday and had injured on several occasions. It was impossible for anyone else to keep up. Meanwhile, my mother returned home completely drained — emotionally and financially. We lived off of credit cards and partial rent payments for long stretches of time. By the fourth grade, I’d been stressing out about bills for a few years, long abstaining from…