Puerto Rican Funerals: Customs, Traditions and What to Expect

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Puerto Rican funerals are as diverse as the people who call it home. With Spanish and African influences, Puerto Rico has developed some distinct funeral customs over time. Puerto Ricans follow traditional Roman Catholic funeral practices, but with certain differences. While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, you might not be familiar with all their funeral customs. 

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Many parts of the island use Latin American rituals, witchcraft, and healing. According to Pew Research, 70 percent of Puerto Ricans believe in angels and 69 percent in miracles. Puerto Rican customs depend on what part of the island you are visiting. 

Are you planning a Puerto Rican funeral or attending one? Keep reading to become familiar with the Isla Bonita’s funeral customs and culture.

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Puerto Rican Views of Death and Dying

Puerto Ricans believe their loved ones go to heaven when they die. To ease the deceased's passage into heaven they host long vigils and pray into the night. The longer their prayers, the easier it will be for their loved ones to enter the afterlife. In addition, Puerto Rican funerals are also expressive.

Friends and family mourn openly. They aren't afraid to share feelings and memories of the deceased. It is common for loved ones to gather around the body during a wake while sharing memories.

After the funeral, there is also a seven day mourning period. Friends and family will burn a candle for seven days in mourning. They believe the smoke goes up into heaven to remind the dead that their family is thinking about them. 

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Puerto Rican Funeral Practices and Customs

Family members often travel a long time to reach the small island of Puerto Rico. If you are a family member then it is your obligation to attend the funeral. You will be heavily involved in planning the ceremony and mourning your loved one.

Puerto Ricans make every effort to preserve the memory of the dead. You will find family and friends talking about death and sharing memories openly. Some Puerto Ricans are celebrating loved ones in standing funerals. You can read more about this practice and other customs below.

Order of service

Long days of prayer that aid the soul into the afterlife mark the service. You will see Catholic rituals present at the funeral, but don’t be surprised to see unique customs influenced by Latin American and African cultures, too. Puerto Ricans have short funerals. They remember the dead through prayer and celebration throughout the year instead. Here’s a typical order of service: 

  • Vigil: The family members hold a vigil after death and before the dawn of the burial. This a time for prayer for the soul. Friends and family light candles while praying for the deceased. The vigil is usually held at the family home or home of the deceased. 
  • The funeral mass: Family and friends attend a Catholic funeral mass. Since most Puerto Ricans are Catholic, a priest attends, and it is usually held at a church. The women of the family enter the church first. Usually, the matriarch or eldest woman enters first. 
  • Burial: The priest blesses the grave with holy water. Friends and family may speak about the dead or read eulogies. Finally, the pallbearers carry the casket to the cemetery.  

Puerto Rico’s past slavery and plantation culture blend the practices above with brujera or witchcraft. Practicing witchcraft is common in some parts of the island, especially rural areas. You may see images of saints or ancestor worship. Family members and friends may try to communicate with the deceased.

Funeral songs

You will hear traditional Catholic funeral songs that express grief during the mass. But, you may also hear folk music or bomba, drum music, during the procession to celebrate the deceased. 

On occasions like the death of a child, family members sing special songs as part of a ritual called the baquiné or the velorio del angelito to celebrate the child becoming an angel. The songs may describe the child or they may be “sung stories” that everyone in attendance can sing. 

Typical prayers

Prayers are an important part of the Puerto Rican funeral. Family members say the rosary each night for nine nights following the death. The novena is a time for the community to reconnect in prayer over their loved ones. 

There is an altar with nine levels that represent the steps towards heaven. The family decorates the altar with candles and ribbons to honor the deceased. Each night, the family moves a candle up a step to represent the soul’s journey to heaven. The daily prayers may be different or the same, but the most important part of the novena is the family’s intention to help the soul go to heaven.

Location of service

Puerto Rican funeral services are usually held at a church. The prayers before and after the burial are a community event and happen at the family home. 

Standing funerals

You may not always see the deceased in a coffin when attending a Puerto Rican funeral. Some Puerto Ricans are choosing standing funerals or muerto parao funerals instead. Funeral homes prepared the deceased doing activities as if they are alive. This is also referred to as extreme embalming.

The deceased may be posed playing video games, sitting on a chair, or even playing card games. In this way, family members can see their loved ones doing what they enjoyed for the last time. The practice may seem strange at first, but it is a way for the family to celebrate life, not death.

Flowers

Giving flowers isn’t a central part of Puerto Rican funerals, but it can still be a nice gesture. Other alternatives like donations and sympathy cards are also a great way to express your condolences to the grieving family. 

The death of a child 

Puerto Ricans believe death is a celebration, especially in the case of angelitos or little angels. Friends and family see the deceased child as pure and innocent. When children die they go straight to heaven to join the other ancestors. If you attend the funeral of a child you won't see grief but the joyful celebration of a child’s soul going up to heaven instead. 

During the baquiné, the evening before the child’s funeral, family members will gather to sing songs, dance, eat food, and drink. Family members dress children in white and paint their faces to look like angels.

After the funeral, the family prays to their angels or has conversations with them. In this way, Puerto Ricans heavily emphasize remembering the dead.

Puerto Rican Funeral Etiquette

If you are attending the funeral of an adult, please note that it is a somber event with plenty of prayers involved. While Puerto Rican funerals follow Catholic customs, there are still a few differences in etiquette you may want to remember.

What to wear to the funeral

Deciding what to wear to a funeral can be difficult, so keep modesty in mind. Because funeral services take place in a church, you want to make sure to show up wearing your “Sunday best.”

Dark colored clothing is a good choice that shows respect towards the family. Men can expect to wear a dress shirt or pants and a knee-length skirt or dress can be a conservative choice for women.

Bringing gifts, sympathy cards, and flowers

Each Puerto Rican town has a protective patron saint. As a token of thoughtfulness and respect, you can find the patron saint of the deceased's hometown. A candle or other item with the saint’s image is a wonderful gift idea for the grieving family. 

You will find family and friends lighting candles during the vigil, mass, and burial. Candles or flowers in the shape of a cross can be a good gift idea, too.

Puerto Rican Burial Customs & Remembering the Dead

The family usually buries the deceased at a cemetery or other burial space. In the past, Puerto Ricans saw cremation as preventing the soul from reaching heaven, but modern costs of burials are changing this view. Since cremation is less expensive, you may find it is a good option for your loved one.

No matter the burial method, Puerto Ricans have a strong connection to the deceased. They celebrate the Day of the Dead every November. During this festive holiday, the family lights candles and visits their loved one's gravesite. For Puerto Rican families sharing memories and holding memorials every year makes the dead come alive again.

Final Thoughts: Family First 

There are a few essential things to keep in mind before attending a Puerto Rican funeral. Now that you are familiar with a vigil and mass you will notice the Catholic influences present. You can be prepared to express your own grief—feel free to cry and hug family members. Open shows of emotion are welcome in this culture. 

Also, you don’t have to worry about feeling left behind. Catholics value both family and hospitality so you can expect to feel welcome. If you are the one planning a Puerto Rican funeral you can expect the immediate and extended family to surround you in support, too. 

Finally, If planning or preparing for the funeral has made you reflect on your own death make sure to plan ahead.


Sources 

  1. Dischman, Rebecca. “Religion.” Pennsylvania State University, “www.sites.psu.edu/intercommpuertorico/religion5/”
  2. Bruno, Peggy. “An Interview about Grief and Mourning in Puerto Rico.” University of Indiana, “www.indiana.edu/~famlygrf/culture/peggy_culture.html”
  3. “Patron Saint of Each Municipality.” Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico, www.enciclopediapr.org/en/encyclopedia/patron-saint-of-each-municipality/
  4. “Religion in Latin America.” Pew Research Center, www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/chapter-3-religious-beliefs/
  5. “Death Rituals in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.” Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico, www.enciclopediapr.org/en/encyclopedia/death-rituals-in-puerto-rico-and-the-caribbean/
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