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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


On ageing, migrants, and cremation: a moving burial for moving people

By Alfonso Otaegui, on 11 December 2020

Figure 1. Young man during a procession of El Señor de los Milagros in Arequipa, Peru. CCNC-BY Alfonso Otaegui

I did fieldwork among Peruvian migrants in Santiago, Chile, focusing on their experience of ageing as migrants. When talking about life in general, their stories of struggle and success, and their aspirations towards the future, conversations always turn to discussing what will happen when they will no longer be here: legacies that may or may not be passed onto the next generation, their children and their future and even what will happen to their own bodies.

I must highlight that I did fieldwork within a Christian brotherhood that honours a Peruvian patron saint, El Señor de los Milagros. Therefore, what is discussed in these paragraphs does not apply to all Peruvian migrants in Chile[i] The fact that the research participants are devout Christians, however, makes some findings more intriguing.

Burial is traditional among Catholics and, therefore, also among the participants of the study[ii]. Several of them recall going to the cemetery in Peru to honour their grandparents or even family members they had never met. Most of them, however, have come to the idea –some of them just recently, others before– that they would prefer to be cremated. In a way, this is a sacrifice that they are making for the sake of their children.

Throughout the conversations with the migrants who prefer cremation as a way of disposing of their bodies, two major explanations seem to appear. The first one is rather technical and pragmatic. If a migrant passes away in the destination country and wants to be buried in Peru, this presents many difficulties. Liliana, a 62-year-old accountant, recalls the story of her sister, who passed away in the United States. The bureaucracy of moving the body of a deceased person to another country was a nightmare, so finally, she decided that she should be laid to rest in the US. Repatriation would also have been extremely expensive. The other reason why one may prefer cremation can be attributed to changes in traditions. José, a 61-year-old lawyer, acknowledges this, in a tone that contains resignation and hints of nostalgia: ‘families used to go to the cemetery to put flowers on their dead ones…but that has been lost, they start to forget you…what would be the point [of a burial]? Even I go to the cemetery less often when I visit Peru’. José acknowledges that people tend to go to the cemetery less and accepts it as a natural change that comes with the new generations: some customs just get lost. He is starting to consider cremation, so if his children want to spread his ashes, they can do it. It seems that he wants to release his children from the duty of going to the cemetery. Elena, a 48-year-old nurse, is quite straightforward about this point: ‘cremation. It is the most pragmatic for my daughters, so they can forget about going to the cemetery and laying down flowers’.

There is a sense of not being a burden to their children, coupled with the acceptance that their children will not continue these traditions. There is also something about cremation and the portability of funeral urns that make this method especially suitable for these migrants: a moving burial for moving people. The story of Marcos, 56 years old, illustrates this point. Marcos has his mother and his father in Peru. He also has two daughters from his first marriage scattered across the two countries – one in Peru, the other one in Chile. His second and current wife and their son live in Chile. When talking about the future, the possibility of death and what happens afterwards, he states quite firmly: ‘Cremated. Half of me will be here, and the other half will be there’. His firm decision only became apparent two or three years ago. He acknowledges: ‘I used to say that I wanted to be buried in Peru. But then, my son said that I was only thinking about myself, and not about the son wanting to see his father’. Marcos says that was a good enough argument for being cremated. In the end, Marcos’s ashes –just like his life– will be scattered across two countries: the country of his mother and the country of his son.


[i] I do not intend to generalise about Peruvian migrants in Chile. I met most participants by joining Christian brotherhoods. Religion was, expectedly, an essential aspect of their lives. This fact does not necessarily mean all Peruvians in Chile are religious or that they are involved in brotherhoods.

[ii] The 1983 revised Code of Canon Law states: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.” (part II, title III, Can. 1176.3). Retrieved from https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4A.HTM


“Heal our wounds” Does religious devotion increase with ageing?

By Alfonso Otaegui, on 9 April 2018

Photo by Alfonso Otaegui (CC BY)

The huge cupola of the Our Lady of Lourdes Basilica is hard to miss while walking through the peaceful neighborhood of Quinta Normal in the western area of Santiago de Chile. Just in front of the temple lays a street market of a particular kind. Street markets are common in Santiago. Some of them are permanent, while some others come up during specific days for a couple of hours and then vanish. Vendors set up tables and plastic roofs and sell the most varied merchandise: fruits, shoes, books, vegetables, bags, fish, used electric devices, clothes and plastic containers. Vendors cry out their offers and some of them even sing. The merchants in front of the temple, however, sell a quite distinctive paraphernalia, more in tune with the ambiance of the place. Yellow candles, brown crucifixes, grey statues of saints, blue bottles for holy water in the shape of the Virgin Mary, red bracelets and pink quartz stones lay next to each other in colorful contrast. Their colors are as varied as their purposes: specific saints (or stones) heal specific ailments or protect against specific evils. The diversity of this pantheon does not distract from what is beyond the market: the impressive open-air temple of the Lourdes Grotto.

This open-air temple, built in the late XIX century, hosts a reconstruction of the Lourdes Grotto, the cave in France where, according to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary made a series of apparitions to the 14-year old shepherd Bernadette in 1858. A series of minor displays to the left and to the right of the major shrine tell the story of Bernadette and her many encounters with the Lady. At the center, in the main shrine, a statue of Bernadette can be seen to the left. If you follow her gaze upward, you will find a statue of the Virgin Mary next to the words “Mother of Christ, heal our wounds and increase our faith”. For a couple of hours the shrine is open and people are invited to go in and touch the rock. While a lady at a pulpit reads the story of the apparitions and prays to Mary, people come to the front, piously caress the feet of Bernadette, touch the cave wall behind the altar and then reach a holy water font, where they wet their fingers and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.

Even though there were people of varied ages, most of them were over fifty years old, not few of them over seventy years of age. They came, they sat for a while and, if the shrine was open, they would go to touch the statue and the wall. To the left of the shrine there is a spring of holy water. People queue –some standing, some on crutches, some in wheelchairs– to bless themselves or to gather the holy water in bottles, a few of which had the shape of the Virgin. The walls demarcating the area temple are covered with marble plaques, of which I counted over 2.000. Some of them as small as a packet of cigarettes, some others as big as a magazine. Some of them ask for help for a specific individual or family. Most of them thank the Virgin of Lourdes for the received favors. Some are as anonymous as to use the initial letters of names, while others have pictures of the beloved person for whom healing or care is asked. On the marble surface further requests and gratitude notes are written in pencil. The newest one was from last month. The oldest one from the first decade of the 20th century. For over a century people have come to this shrine to ask for divine help against disease or unemployment and to express gratitude later on. The high number of elderly people is remarkable. Was it always like this? Did these devoted citizens also come when they were younger? Does religious devotion increase with age? These are some of the questions related to the experience of ageing, healthcare and spirituality I want to answer in the frame of the ASSA project.