Bright Colours Only: an Irish wake goes to Brazil
In Brazil, life is slow but death is fast. If you die in the morning you’ll be pushing up the daisies by teatime – or eating the grass by its roots, as they say over here. So what will a Brazilian audience make of my Irish wake, Bright Colours Only?
Thanks to the British Council, I was invited to the seventh Cultura Inglesa Festival in Sao Paolo to organise six wakes in ten days. Irish wakes are illegal in Brazil – there is a requirement to bury the corpse within 24 hours. So it’s handy that my coffin is full of metaphors only.
I arrive to wonderful press coverage of ‘Apenas Cores Brilhantes’, none of which I could read because, to my shame, “No falo Portuguese”.
The Brazilian Eamonn Holmes
After resting on the first day, I find myself in front of a Brazilian camera crew covering the show for television. If my new audience are to understand the script, there are one or two cultural references that I have to solve.
Who is the Brazilian Eamonn Holmes? And do they have Taggart over here? One old relative in the play has a dialogue with the TV and another loves God, Our Lady and Eamonn Holmes. I opt to find Brazilian equivalents.
Eduardo, the subtitles man, suggests Silvio Santos for dear old Eamonn. Taggartbecomes Kojak, and Brookside is elbowed aside for Mulheres Pasionadas (an even worse tele-novella than our long lost Brookie). They all get huge laughs on our first night. Mind you, they are probably laughing at my pronunciation.
The theatre has sourced the entire set and the props – including the coffin. It’s not a bad fit; a bit big at the top, but when in Rome, or in Brazil…
The coffin itself looks stagey, not like the real thing. But I’m assured it is the genuine article. Brazilians don’t spend a lot of reales on coffins because nobody looks at them much. There isn’t the time, I suppose.
Wake with a difference
The lid has an odd design. It looks like a giant biscuit. It adds another layer to the whole tea and sympathy dimension of the show.
Anyway, once we get the coffin open, I’m convinced of its authenticity by the paper lining and the pillows stuffed full of sawdust for maximum absorbency. My own coffin has the satin-finish pillows with straw and staples but I can go international.
I greet everyone as they enter. Paulistans love the personal touch – they are much more tactile and kissy than at home. One man almost bites my neck, but in a nice way.
The audience in every show are the funeral party and cram into my wee living room at the beginning – sitting on couches as I hand out tea, whiskey and sandwiches.
But this is an Irish-Brazilian wake with a difference. They have caterers, nouvelle cuisine sarnies and ice and club soda with the whiskey. Like the Irish they are noisy, but initially unsure of the hospitality.
“How much are the sandwiches?” one glamorous old lady asks. But they soon relax and the older men even make flirtatious suggestions to the bereaved widow. Shocking!Another character – a female undertaker lady, who looks like a cross between an Avon Lady and a coffin saleswoman - is met with laughter and bemused curiosity.
In Sao Paolo, a city of 16 million people, there is only one embalmer .He is based near the airport and deals primarily in preserving tourists or exiles who are homeward bound with a one-way ticket in the wooden express.
The death industry
In Ireland, when I open the coffin people often gasp. The humour is dark and near the bone. But in Brazil it’s more bizarre and comical. The idea of having the body in the house is surreal. Making up the body is also alien. Bodies usually come straight from the hospital without make-up.
Marceo, our tour guide, tells me it’s common to see cotton wool in the nose and ears because less time and care is taken. The death robes with detachable arms don’t exist here. The cremation option remains a rarity in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.The Brazilians are more conservative when it comes to life and death than you might expect. “Yes, we dance naked at the carnival,” says film-maker Tomas Miguez, “but then we come home.”
He filmed parts of Bright Colours for his documentary Para Nao Esquecer (Forget Me Not) about dying and the death industry in urban Brazil. We’re miles apart, but our themes are the same: the packaged nature of the death industry, the vacuum left by the absence of collective ritual and the sanitisation of death hidden from view in the funeral parlour.
“People assume that Brazilians have an open attitude to death, like the Mexicans,” Miguez says. “But the Day of the Dead is a very serious and sad day here. We don’t celebrate it. We observe it.”
But Brazilians are clearly still attracted to death. All six shows are a sell-out and the audience’s response is far from reserved. They laugh, cry and chatter in the funeral cortege, bemused at this unusual spectacle. The audience queues to pass on stories as we say goodbye outside the theatre.
The world’s third biggest city, Sao Paolo is one huge traffic jam and the only corteges here are in cars. Hearses don’t stop for the red lights and motorists honk their horns to alert each other that a cortege is coming their way.
At a workshop at the University of Sao Paolo Irish Studies Institute I learn some more about death rituals, Brazil style. The North Brazilians feel closer to the Irish wake. They do have the body in the house, but just for the day and there’s no drink (just chicken soup).
They cover the body with flowers, and even take photographs of the dead which they put in albums.
Children dress as angels and they even have a professional Banshee. In Ireland, we have the wailing spirit; in Brazil they have thecarpideino - a wailing woman paid to cry at other people’s funerals. She is a spiritual, professional mourner, there to help the people to cry.
Here the rich and poor live and die differently. Death isn’t as hidden in the poverty-ridden shanty towns - Las Favelas. Each night ten people are murdered in Sao Paolo. Poverty is so extreme that grave robbery is still common.
Tombs are raided for jewellery and gold fillings. In Vila Formosa, the biggest graveyard in Latin America (some 800,000 kilometres of land), Paulista children tidy graves for change.
Unsurprisingly, the people from the shanty towns didn’t make it to the theatre. I wondered what they would make of an Irish wake. So I visited them. The highlight of my week was watching Meninos Do Morumbi – 300 young children, mostly from shanty towns, rehearsing the spectacularly vibrant assembly of drums, dancing and singing I have ever witnessed.
Never have I seen such energy. As I travel around with my death show, it is wonderful to see a part of Brazil so full of life.