Dying in Costa Rica
What happens when you die?... no, this is not a theological question. Better put... what happens when you die in Costa Rica? Every culture has it's customs when it comes to the dear departed, and if you're unlucky enough to have death befall you or a companion while you're in Costa Rica, here's a bit of insight.
If planning on living in Costa Rica, consider what will happen if one dies here, regardless of age. In any case, consider writing up a will and testament to help loved ones who are left behind make proper decisions.
When someone dies in Costa Rica, the process begins almost immediately and people from all around receive the news almost at warp speed, because there is no embalming process. If the deceased has relatives that live far away, they may miss the funeral all together since usually people are buried no later than the day after they have died here in Costa Rica. If relatives need to preserve the body until other relatives arrive, they will maintain the body as fresh as possible in a storage unit, or they can have it embalmed, but this will cost extra.
Depending on the type of death, the processing will be different. For example, if an elderly or sick person dies at home or in the hospital then a doctor comes and simply writes a death certificate, usually without performing an autopsy.
If someone dies in an accident then the judge comes with the OIJ, the equivalent of the FBI in the US, to do a formal investigation. The body cannot be moved until this, and the body is taken to the morgue in Heredia where an autopsy will be preformed and the death certificate is created.
After either of these cases, the body is returned to the undertaker that the family has solicited. The undertaker will prepare the body with formaldehyde. Most funerals smell very strongly of this mixed with the smell of decomposing flesh, which is rather unpleasant.
The family of the deceased is responsible for contracting all of the services such a mass and flowers at a local undertaker. The family selects from the different coffin types. They even have one with fake fur. One of the family members or two if needed usually dress the deceased and can put make-up on them, unless the undertaker does so which is not too common.
The family is also responsible for writing up an obituary. These come out in big ads in the back of La Nacion newspaper and even after news spots on Channel 7 with some peaceful music to let everyone know in case they did not get a personal phone call.
The Funeral Services
Depending on who has died determines the size of a funeral. Normally, large funerals are made up of huge extended families, co-workers, and friends. Sometimes if the person was a government worker, entire municipalities will come out to honor one of their own.
Usually when the body is returned, the family and close friends have a viewing service they call a "vela." Even neighbors come out to see who has died and pay their respects. These services tend to get pretty crowded. Only in severe cases where the body has been destroyed or the deceased has requested that their body not be viewed is it not displayed. People at the "velas" usually cry, sing, remember old times, tell old stories, and pray.
The next day or within the next few hours the body is usually sent to a church as most Costa Ricans are pretty religious where the deceased has a mass held in their name. After the mass the funeral train begins. Honestly, it looks like a scene out of any Latin American movie; the long black hearse car covered in flowers with a trail of people dressed all in black crying slowly, walking behind it. As it rains frequently in Costa Rica, there is usually a procession of black umbrellas too.
This train stops at the local cemetery where the deceased person's family usually has a communal family burial box that they have been paying for. This is something really crazy about Costa Rican funerals. Some families only have one box, so if grandma died last month and grandpa dies the following year, they take her remains out, put them in a bag, and put them back in with grandpa's body. Usually just the body is placed in these slots without the coffin. This was very common in the past.
The Semetary & Cost
Some of the burial boxes are above ground cement structures, that are usually tiled in white ceramic tiles. There are usually four separate holes, but people from other families might be renting the other spots. They are not well marked with names unless the family is very wealthy and has a whole statue and structure with the name plates made up. Other bodies are actually buried in the ground in the box.
Cremation exists but is not common, and it is significantly more expensive around $3,000 USD. One would also then have to factor in the additional funeral costs. The most inexpensive in ground funeral would cost around $2,000 with a service.
Shipping A Dead Body
If someone wants their body shipped back to their home country, the process will be much more complicated and expensive, and not something I'm going to go into in this text. I did, how ever, find this web site that might help.