The churches of Chiloe, Chile
In death, there can be a peace. There will be grief, undoubtedly, but also a comfort. The life will not be judged in isolation but as part of a community formed around it. It’s the lives that were touched which say more than anything. Dots, only when interconnected with lines, bring clarity and definition to the picture.
In Chiloe, an archipelago which serves as a stepping stone from the populated areas of Chile to its rugged and isolated Patagonian south, a funeral is starting. In the island’s small town of Castro, the local community has filled the church. Some people stand at the back and others perch on the stone blocks which support the buildings solid wooden columns.
Your narrator sits awkwardly on the edge of the last row of pews. I had come in as a tourist to have a look at the unique architecture of Chiloe’s churches, which fuse European and native styles. Now, unexpectedly, I am part of the congregation as the music plays and the service begins.
I am torn between the embarrassment of not belonging and a curiosity about the local culture. Curiosity wins.
The funeral in Chiloe
The music is not what I expect. It comes from a small band to the side of the altar, and sounds more like folk than church music. Guitars twang and a female voice sings out with melodic Spanish. Sometimes parishioners sing along to a few lines of a chorus if they know the words. Mostly the lyrics come only from the band.
There’s a familiarity to the whole service, but there are also so many differences it feels strange. Like an old home with a fresh coat of paint.
It’s not just the music. The eulogies are given by men who look like local farmers, dressed as if they have come directly from the fields. A family sits towards the back eating popcorn (seriously!), while in another row I see a middle-aged woman offering a bag of nuts to others near her.
Death is inevitable. The shock should not be in the passing but in the fact that so much was able to be made of the years before the end came. The day will be measured not by the circumstances which brought it, but by the times that delayed it.
So as I sit here in the church of Chiloe, wooden sculptures of Jesus and saints looking down at me from the walls of the church, I realise that this service is as much about the community as the deceased. This is a chance for them to come together and show their strength in the very fact they can come together.
There are few tears during the funeral and the mood is more one of solemnity than grief. Perhaps many of the mourners didn’t even know the deceased well. You have to assume that’s the case with the girl who walks out halfway through to answer her phone – or those who chat to each other at the back of the church, clearly catching up on news from lost weeks.
It doesn’t take away from the gravity of the event, though. In some ways it adds to it because it shows a comfortable sense of belonging.
When the service has ended the coffin is carried to the hearse, which begins to drive down the small roads of Castro towards the cemetery. The congregation follows. Scores of mourners pour out from the church and walk down the streets behind the car, stopping the light traffic on the roads as they pass.
The men and women of Chiloe have been very proud of their faith since it was introduced by the Spaniards in the 17th century. The churches that remain from that time are heritage listed but there’s probably no need.
They would never be touched or allowed to fall into disrepair. They are the soul of this community and inside their walls the people show their grief, their celebration and their strength.