April 23, 2014

Ricardo Péculo, funeral planner

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

‘I talk to the future dead’

Ricardo Péculo
By Agustina Larrea
For The Herald

Ricardo Péculo is the symbol of funerals in Argentina. In the documentary El problema con los muertos es que son impuntuales (The Problem With the Dead is That They Are Never On Time), he explains the distinctive features of his profession.

What does a funeral planner do?

I try to change people’s minds and also make them discard the taboos of death. That is why I try to spread what I do, because it helps people accept death. I say it in the film: what happens if I plan my wedding party the same day I’m getting married? How am I going to organize my funeral the exact day of the funeral? So I visit my clients, talk to the ones who are going to hire me, I talk to the family and the future dead as well. That is my job. The only thing they have to do is choose. Later they call me and say ‘Ricardo, Manuel died.’ I am in charge because everything was planned beforehand. They only have to cry, I do the rest.

Is it difficult to make people understand this idea of planning when it comes to death?

The thing is that being tidy and organized doesn’t mean that death is going to come sooner. For instance, I have already chosen my coffin. Two months ago I had a heart attack. And my coffin is still empty. Some started to polish it just in case. What happens is that, for example, if you have a relative on a hospital bed and someone says ‘I’m going to call and ask about the cost of a funeral just in case,’ the rest of the family will want to throw him out the window. But they shouldn’t. I was responsible for many important funerals. One of them was the ceremony when the musician Rubén Juárez died. When he passed away his wife told me, ‘Ricardo, Rubén wanted a light blue coffin.’ I went and searched everywhere to find one. Later I found out that he had been in hospital for three months. They should have told me before!

Should funeral rites symbolize the deceased in some way?

That is the thing. When people are healthy they say: ‘I don’t want any rites, just throw me away. I don’t want people crying at my funeral.’ That’s something very silly. How is your family not going to cry at your funeral? They are going to cry even if they play music - and then even if it is the music that the deceased liked. In fact, they are going to cry even more when they listen to that music. I organized the funeral of a dance teacher. Before closing the coffin the family decided to dance as a tribute to him. To me, a funeral is not the sign of a death but the memory of a life that was well lived. I don’t bury people, I honour them. I have already planned my funeral. But my final destination is my wife’s decision.

What have you planned?

My wife likes going to the cemetery, she often goes to see the tombs of her parents and my brother. So she is going to come at my tomb too. But we have made a pact: if she decides not to go anymore because she got tired or found a boyfriend, then she has to send me to a crematorium. I don’t want to be abandoned in a cemetery. There are two kinds of deaths: the one that occurs when you die and the other one that takes place when people forget about you.

Do your clients ask you to be buried with objects in the coffin?

That happens a lot. They are called grave goods. Once I was preparing the body of a deceased before the funeral and his wife came with a golf ball and asked if we could put it in his hands. It was the ball that her husband used in the first tournament he won. These things have a very strong meaning. A man once asked me to put his fishing rod in his coffin too.

Couldn’t these things be offensive in a way to very religious people?

I don’t think so. Funeral rites stem from religion. Then we do the rest. I don’t use the golf clubs to replace the cross or the image of Christ. I just put both the cross and the golf clubs in.

Are there trends in funeral rites?

Now many people ask for themed coffins, there is a trend. They tell me ‘Ricardo, I want everything with Boca Junior’s colours at the funeral,’ for instance. And there is always the fear of being buried alive. Years ago, people talked about catalepsy. Now the medicine made some progress and it is very difficult to bury someone who did not die. But human errors do exist. Many ask me, ‘Has someone waken up during a funeral?’ People think that a dead man may wake up. That’s why some of my clients ask me to bury them with their cell phones in the coffin. Until now, nobody has ever called me and I don’t even know if there is good phone reception underground. You don’t even have a plug to connect your cell charger. In the past they used to put a stick with a bell and a cord near the corpse. So the fear of being buried alive comes from the past. Then many tell stories that I don’t like: they speak about scratched coffins, bodies that turn inside the casket. In my experience, that is something silly, there is no room for that inside the coffin. There could be human errors but, in all these years that I have been working, nobody resurrected.

What must people do when someone dies?

First of all, they have to call a doctor to certify the death. Without a certificate, there is no death. Then, with this paper and the identity card of the deceased, we go to the office to prepare the body. We take the corpse on a stretcher to be prepared for the coffin. Who deals with the corpses? Only the staff members of the company hired for the rites. Who prepares the bodies? The thanatopractitioners or mortuary beauticians.

Where do they study?

Now you can get a degree in funeral management from the University of Avellaneda. It takes two years and I’m very proud of this. Because in the United States you have to go to college to become an undertaker. Here anyone can run a funeral services company. I’m also the director of an institute where I teach funerary rites. There are courses of Mortuary aesthetics, which is the preparation of the corpses. Many people ask me, ‘Why do you pretty them up if they are already dead?’ They don’t understand that we do this for the family. The whole point is that they keep a pleasant last image of their relative. Because that is what they will always remember. Now in big cities many people are planning ‘express’ services and some of them prefer no funeral at all. That is insane. They say society has changed its mind about death but that is a big lie. Funerals are important psychologically, to start mourning the loss of a beloved relative.

How was the historical transfer of Perón’s corpse to San Vicente?

I always share the same anecdote. A 89-year-old woman went to see Perón’s coffin. The officers allowed her to go nearer because she was old. She grabbed the coffin’s handle so strongly that she wouldn’t let go. Everything was fervorous, popular fervour for Perón. It was a historic event, not political. That is how I remember it. Flowers falling from balconies. Something strange happened to me when we finally left the body in San Vicente: people touched my hands and said, ‘You were near Perón.‘ They say I was the last person to see Perón. And it is true. People wanted to take photos with me for that reason. Then I realized that it was a historic event. For me it was like a graduate course. Now, I would like to finish my career by taking Evita’s corpse there too. The place is prepared for both of them.

How do you see the funerary industry nowadays in Argentina?

I think it is similar to other industries. We have problems like many others. But beyond this, the companies are not very professional yet. If they offered their clients tributes to the dead and some other services, people would invest in death. People always say to me, ‘Your business is always guaranteed’ but that is not how I see it. My clients come to me only once, not twice. Our job is among the less profitable. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t get money. Our clients ask us to pay with their credit cards.

How much does a coffin cost?

You pay a complete service, you don’t buy only a coffin. With the whole service, the hearse and the arrangements to drive the family to the cemetery and all, you pay at least 8,000 pesos. I don’t think that is expensive if you compare it with the price of an LCD TV. A lavish funeral may be around 35,000 pesos. The thing is, in order to charge that, you have to offer certain services to your clients. Many say, ‘He is already dead, what do you want me to do?’ because they think a funeral is just a social event. And that is something that funerary companies should explain to their clients: the more time and money they save in the funeral, the more they will spend in the future on seeing a psychologist.


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