This has been a busy year. Some of my travel has included: Key West, Orlando, Nashville, Seattle, Boston, Kelowna BC, Toronto, Albany, Columbus, Dallas, Lexington and Louisville KY, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, NYC, Guarulhos and Sao Paulo, Brazil, Burlington VT, Ft Lauderdale, Chicago, Newark. Wait, what? I went to Brazil? I WENT TO BRAZIL! Now for some of you, international travel is a common place experience that doesn’t rate all caps. I travel at least thirty times a year, so I definitely have my frequent flier bona fides. But, to date, all of my trips have been in North America bouncing around the US and Canada. So, this was a BIG DEAL for me.
Not only did I go to Brazil, but I was invited there to train Brazilian funeral professionals. A daunting and challenging task that kept me up many nights as I contemplated exactly how this was going to work. From the moment I was asked, the thought kept flashing in the back of my head “How are they going to understand you, your examples, your vernacular, your jokes? Especially your jokes!”
Gisela Dardengo Adissi, the president of Funerária Primaveras in Guarulhos , came to our Celebrant training. She was a wonderful participant in our training. I’m always in awe of our friends from other countries who are brave enough to go through a training that requires them to write a funeral and to perform it in front of the class in English. None of us are holding up our hands to do the same thing in Portuguese!
After the training she said, “You must come to my country and teach people how to do this. You must change funeral practice for Brazil.” Whoa there. Brazil is a very large country. I’m not sure I’m up to that challenge. I smiled. I’ve been told before that I needed to come to Country X to offer training, but it never worked out.
But, then, lo and behold, she was serious! Very serious. The invitation was to come to Guarulhos and São Paulo. Brazil. The only things I knew about Brazil were Olympics, Zika, Carnavale, Rain Forest, and an adorable animated movie about a blue macaw.
I tried to convince her that I was not sure that I had anything to offer, funeral practices are so different, I’m just an Okie funeral director and Celebrant, what do I have to offer? She insisted. Finally, I agreed. And lived in terror for the next three months.
The plan was for me to offer 3 one-day trainings, presenting the same material and concepts each day, for 6 hours with translators. OK, I was already tired just thinking about that. The first two days would be for the entire staff of Primaveras—50 on each day. The final day would be in São Paulo for the Association of Cemeteries and Private Crematories of Brazil (Sincep) annual conference. The audience there would be 125 cemetery/crematory owners. Not a hard crowd at all.
So, I spent hours upon hours preparing presentation materials, sending Power Points and videos to be translated, listening to Rosetta Stone trying to change my high school Spanish into passable Portuguese, (I did not succeed) and worrying. I have been a professional speaker, educator, trainer my entire adult life. Getting up in front of people is definitely in my wheel house. The size or demographics of a crowd does not intimidate me, ever. But this? This one had me nervous.
So, I hopped on an all-night flight to travel the 10 hours. Thank goodness for lay-flat beds in business class! After a quick nap at the hotel, the work began.
I could go on about all the different cultural differences I experienced—riding in a bullet proof car, learning how to insert your hotel room key into a box that turned on the electricity, figuring out how to use the convertor to charge my phone, the complete lack of iced tea anywhere in the country, watching the “motor boys” swing in and out of traffic at break neck speed on their Vespas, seeing Nutella on the menus of high scale restaurants, watching Shrek and Men in Black in Portuguese, learning to say Bom Dia and obrigada and kissing on one cheek. All of these were fun moments of American Adaptation. But, I was there to understand funeral practices in Brazil. And boy did I have a lot to learn!
The first thing that I learned was that funeral staff works 24/7. Let me repeat that. The firm is open for business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Are you freakin’ kidding me? Rather than the firm dictating when it was convenient for families to come see them, they are completely available to whatever the families need. A young woman actually passed out the first day of training. At first, I thought it was from the stress of having to listen to me for hours. But, then we found out that she had worked all night and came straight to the training. The dedication was astounding.
The second part of this equation is that the gathering usually takes place within 4-8 hours after death. The removal team takes care of first call, the arrangers talk to the family on the phone, the body is embalmed, dressed and casketed, and the family will arrive in a few hours for visitation which will last 4-6 hours, sometimes longer. A family could choose to have a service at 2:00 a.m. if that worked for everyone to attend. One of the visitation rooms has a small sleeping room and shower if the family wishes to spend the night with the deceased in order to have a burial in the morning.
There is absolutely no differentiation between burial and cremation. Every body is embalmed. Every body is present for viewing. Every body is part of the experience. The visitation rooms have flat screens so a video tribute can be played. There is a computer screen where families can chose the music playing. There are cakes and coffee. Family and friends come in and out, someone is always sitting vigil for the deceased. They might wander over to the florist shop and purchase some more flowers or go grab a sandwich at the restaurant.
At the end of the visitation, a priest or minister will come in and say a prayer, if that is what the family chooses. A staff violinist comes in and plays for a few minutes. Then, and only then, is where you can tell if the body is to be buried or cremated as the body is either taken in procession to the gravesite where the coffin is lowered and flower petals are scattered, or to the cremation ceremony space where family offers final goodbyes and places roses before the coffin is transported to the crematory.
There is very little difference in price between cremation and burial and, depending upon whether the family has a preneed plan that has taken care of the burial plot, cremation may cost more.
Of course, there are some downsides to this culture. People believe that if they hurry, get it done the same day in a few hours, that they will get past their grief and get back to normal quickly. Anyone who has studied the grief process understands that this is simply not true. No matter where you live— Fairbanks Alaska, Sidney Australia, Gotebo Oklahoma or São Paulo Brazil, grief is grief is grief. They are simply denying and masking and setting themselves up for a lonely journey afterward. Which is not unlike a lot of people in other countries.
OK, Glenda, why were you there? Because Gisela and other leaders in the funeral profession in this country understand that the way to preserve these practices, the way to provide services that are healing and helpful for their families is to expand their ceremonies, to change the culture of their families to expect more from the experience, to help families understand that it is permissible, and even healthy, to slow down, to share stories and to take part in a more organized approach to remembering.
At each of my presentations, there were two translators sitting in a sound booth at the back of the room and every person had headsets to listen to the translation. Oh boy. This was going to be interesting. I learned very quickly to wait for reaction from the audience. The first time I told a joke and got blank looks and then a few seconds later they all laughed, I understood the time delay and adjusted.
If someone from the audience wanted to ask a question, I would put on a headset and listen to the translation, then I would answer and they would listen to the translation. It sounds bulky and awkward, but we soon figured out a rhythm. The audience was gracious, warm, eager to learn and simply amazing.
Needless to say I was exhausted, but was also thrilled that my fears had been unfounded. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, we connected and communicated. It was great. Brazilians have used the “thumbs up” sign long before Facebook made it the international sign for approval, and it became our shared way to tell each other that we were in this together and it was all OK. And I learned that Brazilians love selfies—I think I am on at least 30 cell phones in Guarulhos and Sao Paulo.
When I crawled on the plane after six long days, I was bone weary from three days of speaking and the stress of navigating around the language barrier. But I was eternally grateful for the experience and eager to get home
The lesson I learned is that we Americans are very much in a bubble when it comes to language accessibility. When I turned on the TV and found no English channels, I was shocked. And then I realized, if someone from Brazil came to the US, they wouldn’t be able to find a channel in Portuguese. So why should I expect any different treatment?
I found people in public spaces such as hotels, car services and the airport to be fluent in English and very helpful. Wonder how many visitors from other countries find a safe space when trying to figure out things in our country? We are such an insular country and, I’m afraid, becoming even more so. There’s a big wide wonderful world out there and we should be doing everything possible to be a welcoming and inviting country rather than insisting that the world bends to our language and our practices.
And the most important lesson to be learned was—death and grieving is a universal language. It doesn’t matter where you live, every person must embark upon their path to embracing memories and a healthy approach to finding a new normal.
We are happy to offer our Special Care sets in Spanish and now we must consider how to translate our resources into other languages. Portuguese might be our first foray, now that I’ve met some wonderful translators who can help us bridge that gap.
So, for now, I will say obrigada for listening to my travelogue, or what I did on summer vacation. Tchau.