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

Alfonso Otaegui11 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

 

Smartphone and the ‘sense of ritual’ in daily life — by Xinyuan Wang

Xin Yuan Wang31 May 2019

Mr. Shou taking photos for elderly residents (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

I have not been photographed by a proper camera for ages! It feels so special…nowadays most people only take photos by mobile phone.

79-year-old Mengyun claimed with a big smile after posing for the portrait photographing. Mengyun is one of my neighbors who joined an oral historical project which I co-operate with the local residential compound in Shanghai. As part of the project, I invited Mr. Shou, a professional photographer, to take portrait photos for a few families.

Mr. Shou taking photos for elderly residents (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

Mr. Shou is an experienced photographer who has done a lot of work especially among the elderly. He sees this none-profit photography project as something he has to do with great respect:

Many people passed away without a proper photograph. Every person deserves a proper portrait photo in his or her life. What I want to do is not just take photos, but keep the great memory of the person. I take it with great respect and people can also feel the sense of ritual. Life needs sense of ritual, don’t you think so?”

Mr. Shou always mentioned the phrase ‘sense of ritual’ (yi shi gan) to highlight the significance of the photography session. After seeing how the three-generational family finally arranged a photo slot which can suit every member’s schedule after four-day back-and-forth coordination on the family WeChat group; how the bedridden lady struggled to get up and put on lipstick for the photo-taking, which she had not applied since she was ill; how people moved the heavy furniture around several times to find a best backdrop for the family group photo, I have to admit Mr. Shou is right in many ways – probably the mere fact that this photo is not taken by a smartphone but a ‘proper camera’, as Mengyun put it, has given people the sense of the ritual, so that they are more willing to make an effort to make it better.

Mr. Shou taking photos for elderly residents (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

The cost of photography was definitely one of the main reasons that photo-taking was such as special thing in the past old days. As Guancheng, 70s, recalls: “About forty years ago when I grew interested in photography, it was such a luxury hobby. I remember clearly at the farm camp[1] (nong chang) my monthly salary was about 22 rmb, and at that time a roll of film cost almost 10 rmb, plus the cost of developing the film etc. the cost of taking 30 ish photos was about half of my monthly salary!

On top of it, 50 years ago a camera was so expensive to the degree that almost no individual or household could afford one. People had to borrow cameras from the work unit (dan wei) or rent cameras from camera shops. Given the opportunity of having a photo taken was so rare, the process of arranging photo-taking was also an important part of the ritual.

In many cases, people can remember in great detail about things which were not captured by the photo – such as who took the photo, and in what situations they had the chance to get a photo taken. However sometimes people couldn’t even remember other persons on the photo. The mere fact that the invisible things could get memorized while the visible things could get lost of a photograph seems to lead to an understanding that the very event of photo-taking can be as important as the photograph itself, if not more important.

It seems that the rise the smartphone has killed the ‘sense of ritual’ of daily life as taking photos by smartphones nowadays has become such a mundane activity. However, along with the decline of one kind of ritual, the proliferation of smartphone has created new ‘rituals’ in daily life.

‘New rituals’ being taking photos of the food before a meal – you have to take photos first otherwise you are not fully appreciating the food and the hospitality.

“I don’t think she likes the meal tonight as she didn’t even take any photo of the dishes.” Ms. Huang (58) said showing evident disappointment, after an important dinner to which she treated her son and his fiancée.

‘New rituals’ – i.e.  the taking of many photos and selecting a small portion of them to post on WeChat – the social life of photographs online has become a significance aspect of photo-taking as well as the way people perceive their daily life.

Alice, 35, described her mother’s ‘ritual’ of taking and posting photos: “When she visits somewhere, she really doesn’t have a lot to do, excepting taking loads of photos, and after the visit, she spends a lot of time polishing these photos, adding filters, and after that she carefully selects nine of them[2] to post on her WeChat, editing the text meticulously and then she checks her smartphone almost every two second to see who has liked her photos and what kind of comments she received. And then, the next day you can overhear her WeChat video call with her close friends, complaining who has not liked her posts for a long time.”

Actually, what Alice observed about her mother’s photo-taking ritual is not rare among people of all ages I know in Shanghai. Given the ‘cost’ of taking a photo as well as taking a short video is nothing in the age of smartphone, the ‘willing’ of taking a photo or video speaks directly to people’s attitude and evaluation of things – ‘Is it worthwhile being recorded?’ or ‘Is it worthwhile being posted on my WeChat?’

In the field work, I have observed various situations where people created new rituals out of the daily use of smartphone. The discussion of the relationship between smartphone use and ‘sense of ritual’ will continue in my further study.

[1] Where he was sent to receive re-education from peasants in 1960s.

[2] on WeChat, one post only allows nine images