Death and Dying in New Mexico

By Meléndez, A. Gabriel | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Death and Dying in New Mexico


Meléndez, A. Gabriel, The Catholic Historical Review


American Death and Dying in New Mexico. By Martina Will de Chaparro. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2007. Pp. xxiv, 261. $29.95. ISBN 978-08263-4163-1.)

Martina Will de Chaparro notes that she came to her study by "reading all I could about sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish deathways" (p. xi). Death and Dying in New Mexico shifts from such general readings to a precise examination of some 469 wills executed in New Mexico between 1704 and 1899. Not quite half of these testaments (200) record the final concerns of individuals who died in New Mexico between 1750 and 1850.The author does not fully explain why this period receives the greatest attention, but this may have to do with the availability of documents or with the author's regard for colonial history.

Will de Chaparro insists that studying these wills "broadens our understanding of what it meant to live and die in this most densely populated region of northernmost New Spain" (p. xxiii). She notes that in the absence of other written materials (diaries, memoirs, funerary texts)-more abundant on the eastern seaboard of the United States in this period-wills provide present-day researchers with a rare means to understand how New Mexicans dealt with death in material and spiritual ways. Will de Chaparro's analysis does tap the anecdotal and evidentiary power of these "surviving testaments," enlisting them as crucial aids to shape a "mentality study" of past generations.

Despite the author's understanding of the legal and formulaic uniformity of wills and their limitation in the study of New Mexico deathways, the book relies heavily on these documents. Will de Chaparro insists they provide the "greatest proximity to beliefs about death" (p. xxii) for this place and this time. Despite some methodological problems, Death and Dying contributes to New Mexican cultural studies in some important ways.

Chapter !,"The Good Death," explains how "the act of dying well" entered New Spain as a part of a Catholic moral and social catechesis that provided instruction for how to manage affairs on earth as a means of preparing for eternal life.The three chapters that follow attempt to wed the moral and philosophical outlook of "the Good Death" by assigning meaning to what the documents record about religious and state authority, last rites, pious bequests, the role of frontier confraternities in funerals, and interment practices. …

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