PUERTO RICO – A man dressed as The Green Lantern. A Che Guevara look-alike holding a Cuban cigar. A courier on his favorite motorcycle. A paramedic riding in his ambulance. A boxer standing in the corner of a ring. A grandmother sitting in her favorite rocking chair wearing her old wedding dress.
What do they have in common? They are dead and at their wake. William Shakespeare said "all the world's a stage," with entrances and exits. This macabre shuffling off the mortal coil cropped up in Puerto Rico in 2008 and has quickly become part of modern lore.
Those planning their deaths are no longer just deciding between an open casket or a closed one during their wake – they are getting creative, sometimes even outlandish, about how they want to appear during their last moments on earth.
Angel Luis “Pedrito” Pantojas Medina was 24 years old and belonged to an urban youth subculture in San Juan, rife with guns, drugs and a short life span. He had always told his family that he wouldn’t go lying down and wanted people to forever see him on his feet, even at his funeral. So when Pedrito’s body was found in his underwear and under a bridge shot ten times in the back and twice in the face, his family honored his wishes.
I think this is a media fueled morbidity. More than look at a corpse, people want to see it in action, posed or in some place, as if it were alive.
They dressed him up in street-style clothes, a Yankees ball cap, designer sunglasses and a diamante crucifix hanging on a long chain. His corpse was tethered to a wall in his mother’s living room, so he would be standing up. The pose was defiant, with his thumbs tucked into the pockets of his trousers. As streams of strangers came to see the bizarre spectacle, a song by the Panamanian singer/songwriter Rubén Blades played in the background. The lyrics of the song were apropos.
“Si yo he vivido parao, ay que me entierren parao;
Si pague el precio que paga el que no vive arrodillao!
La vida me ha restregao, pero jamas me ha planchao.
En la buena y en la mala, voy con los dientes pelaos!
Sonriendo y de pie: siempre parao”!
It was almost like he was sending a message to his killers: down but not out.
“That was his wish. He wanted to be happy, standing up, like he was in life, strong,” said his brother Carlos Torres. Pantojas strange wake went viral and spawned the phenomenon of “El Muerto Para’o” – giving new meaning to Dead Man Standing. It started a theatrical movement of tableau “vivants” to celebrate the dead of the “bajo mundo.” The practice became so popular that it instigated a constitutional debate in the legislature and at the end was declared legal, as long as the poses where not obscene.
Following “El Muerto en la Motora,” “El Muerto Boxeador Para’o” and “El Muerto Sentado,” the latest incarnation of this ritual is “Vitin, el Taxista.”
Victor Perez Cardona, a beloved 73-year-old taxi driver, expressed that as his last wish he wanted to go out still driving his trusty cab, as he had for 15 years. So his family propped his embalmed corpse up in the front seat, hands at the wheel, ready for his final fare. His was a “people’s funeral,” according to his daughter, Generosa Perez. What begun as a fad fed by a violent subculture had become part of popular culture.
“I think this is a media fueled morbidity. More than look at a corpse, people want to see it in action, posed or in some place, as if it were alive,” said Larissa Vazquez, Multi-Media Editor for El Nuevo Dia, the newspaper of record of Puerto Rico. “It is the reality show of death. I keep on looking at you even in death. And to expose yourself like this is a form of exhibitionism. It is a spectacle, everything is planned, it seeks to create and manipulate emotions.”
For Samy Nemir Olivares, a communications student at New York City’s The New School, it is more that “in death, they want to be immortalized, have their 15 minutes of fame.”
Victorian England had memento mori, a post-mortem photograph that served to immortalize the deceased loved one. Children where portrayed as if in a deep sleep; adults were posed with family members.
In Puerto Rico, long before the “Muerto Para’o – there was the Baquine wake – a long lost tradition which is part festive, part religious, part magical. It marks the death of an innocent child, an “angelito,” as a joyous event and not an occasion to mourn. The night before the funeral, family and friends gather together to sing, dance, eat and play games until the next morning, with the deceased child in the room, placed in an altar adorned with flowers. Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller illustrated the baquiné (a child's wake) in one of his most famous paintings: El Velorio - The Wake.
“The Dead Man Standing/Sitting or on a Motorcycle are the height of the sublimation of the childishness and ignorance that reigns in this country,” Michelle M. Lavergne Colbert, Chief of Protocol of the Senate of Puerto Rico said. “The baquine wake was something that stemmed from a religious tradition in which a pure soul goes direct to heaven and that we should celebrate.”
If Oller where to paint Velorio today, sadly it would include a Dead Man Standing or one in a boxing ring, ready for that last bout.