As Latin America’s most famous astrologer, Walter Mercado seemed to peer far into the future as he predicted the triumphs and challenges his legion of fans would face.
But his own death on Saturday due to renal failure seemed to have blindsided the 87-year-old.
As memorial services for Mercado began this week, family and friends said the charismatic TV personality often talked about reincarnation and the afterlife in the abstract, but never talked about his final wishes, or where he should be buried.
“He never talked about his own death… he never made any type of plan,” said Betty Benet, one of Mercado’s nieces, who saw him almost daily.
Willie Acosta, who worked as Mercado’s personal assistant for 50 years, said his friend and boss had told him over the years that he wanted the phrase “I was never born and I never died” written on his tombstone. But it was more of a musing than a directive.
“He never thought this day would come,” Acosta said, as well-wishers filed into the funeral home in San Juan. “Even when he was bed-ridden he didn’t think that death was so close.”
Memorial services for Mercado were being held in his native Puerto Rico on Wednesday and Thursday, and he’ll be buried in El Señorial Memorial Park, near his home in Cupey, on Friday.
Benet said all the events are open to the public because her uncle would have wanted to say goodbye to his fans.
Lying in a polished wood casket, Mercado had his wavy blond hair neatly combed back and he was wearing a velvet wine-colored suit with a gold brooch on his throat. The coffin was covered in white flowers, and one of his signature glittery capes was draped beside him.
“We got the prettiest calla lilies we could find, we covered him in perfume and dressed him glamorously, like he always liked,” Benet said. “We are trying to do as many of the things we think he would have wanted, and the things that we think would have pleased him.”
While the flamboyant astrologer was known for wearing shiny robes, capes and heavy jewelry, Acosta said his friend would have approved of the subdued attire he was being buried in.
“This is his last performance, his last show, and we wanted something more serious — elegant but serious,” he said.
Starting his career as a dancer and television actor in Puerto Rico, Mercado built an astrological empire, reaching millions of fans through his syndicated columns and television appearances.
He was a household name who transcended generations throughout Latin America.
Benet said young people would often stop Mercado on the street.
“They would tell him, ‘I couldn’t say a word when you were on TV because my grandmother was scared of missing her horoscope,’” she recalls.
For those who weren’t raised with Mercado, he was often seen as a caricature — the campy astrologer who would end each show with his catchphrase: “y con mucho, mucho amor.”
Cristina Costantini, the co-director of an upcoming documentary about Mercado’s life, said the icon is hard to describe to people unfamiliar with him.
“He had the cultural significance of Oprah and Mr. Rogers and Liberace, but he was also a spiritual adviser, so he’s actually very hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up with him,” she said. “He’s immensely important to the Latin community.”
Among those who paid their respects Wednesday was Hollywood and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, who made a brief stop at the funeral home.
Virginia Prieto, a longtime fan, said she knew Mercado from his days running a dance academy.
“I always said, what a handsome man, he had beautiful skin and beautiful hair,” she said, fighting back tears. “Even in death he’s still beautiful.”
“He had a big heart and was a beautiful person,” she added. “That’s why all of Puerto Rico is here paying their respects.”
Mercado’s life’s work — writing horoscopes — will continue. His publishing and media enterprise had long been run as a family business.
Benet said she and one of her sisters worked with Mercado Monday through Friday for the last 30 years, creating horoscopes and helping him write books at the two-story villa where he lived alone with his dog Runa.
“We know every step of the process of how it’s done,” Benet said of the astrological charts. “And it will be our pleasure to keep creating them, as long as the public still wants them.”
Acosta said there are also other plans to keep Mercado’s legacy alive. Some of his 1,500 capes will be put on display and others have been auctioned off at charity events. There are also plans to turn Mercado’s home into a museum.
“He was a being of light who passed through this plane with a message and legacy of peace and love,” Acosta said. “He was a shooting star.”