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Funeral tradition upended in Puerto Rico

Since the bodies of two young slaying victims appeared at wakes posed in upright positions, a trend has taken hold in a youth subculture marked by violence and bravado.

June 16, 2010|By Frances Robles, McClatchy Newspapers

Reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico —

Angel Luis Pantojas was 6 when he saw his slain father's body in a casket and declared: Not me. At my wake, people will see me on my feet.

So when he was shot 11 times, twice in the face, and tossed over a bridge in his underwear 18 years later, Pantojas got his wish. Pantojas' family tethered his corpse to the wall, where streams of strangers came from throughout Puerto Rico to see the latest curiosity they dubbed el muerto parao — dead man standing.

"You couldn't fit another soul in this room," his aunt Ana Delia Pantojas recalled, showing the holes in the housing project living room wall where the corpse was bound two summers ago. "All sorts of people came here to see him — lawyers, judges. Everyone was talking, saying things like, 'For my wake, I want to be in my recliner with a cup of coffee.' "

The buzz eventually faded, until last month, when David Morales Colon, another young homicide victim from the neighborhood, was embalmed hunched over on his motorcycle. Morales, like Pantojas, was a member of San Juan's growing urban youth subculture in which guns are rampant and lives are often short.

Their "exotic wakes" caused such a sensation that authorities including the Department of Health and the state attorney started poring over the penal code.

Puerto Rico's House of Representatives convened special hearings. The funeral home owners association held an emergency board meeting.

But even as the funeral directors decry exotic wakes as sacrilegious offenses to tradition, this much appears to be clear: The practice is legal. And when a third Puerto Rican man was embalmed on a motorcycle in Philadelphia last week, the trend, to experts' dismay, had come to be seen as a fad in a subculture marked by violence and bravado.

"I see it as a challenge to the authorities: 'You killed me, but you didn't knock me down,' " said Jorge Lugo Ramirez, president of the Puerto Rico Funeral Home Assn. "These kinds of people are surrounded by easy money and guns. We can't be promoting that."

The association asked the Department of Health to investigate and make a rule prohibiting such wakes, requiring that viewings be conducted with the corpse in a coffin — horizontally. Although the burials were normal, morticians fear that exotic wakes will become such a hit that the funeral homes that prepare the most outrageous cadavers will steal business from traditional competitors.

"It could get out of control," Lugo said. "What if one of these guys kills a police officer and wants to be buried with his hands in the form of a V for victory? We'd be supporting something very negative that's going on in our country. The point is that we should not lose our traditions."

But Lugo acknowledges that people have been abuzz about it, requesting funerals on bikes, cars or buses they drove for a living. "I guess then we'd have to conduct the wake in the parking lot," he said with a laugh.

Technically speaking, Lugo was impressed.

"As a professional, I had to admire the work," he said. "The funeral director said she had a secret formula. As an embalmer, let me tell you: It should not be secret. I would like to know how they did it."

The Marin Funeral Home, which handled the wakes for both Pantojas and Morales, is not telling. At first, funeral home manager Elsie Marin talked to the media, and at Morales' motorcycle wake, even handled the body to show the gawking crowds and cameras that it was real.

When it was revealed that she does not have an embalmer's license, Marin hired a lawyer and declined further interviews, although she later said that the work was contracted to a licensed embalmer. Morales' family also declined to discuss it.

"We're done talking about that," said an uncle who would not give his name.

Cultural anthropologist Melba Sanchez, author of the Spanish-language book "Death: Social Aspects and Contemporary Ethics," said the funeral directors shouldn't be in such a tizzy. They should know that funeral traditions change with the years and have evolved to suit individual tastes.

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