Thursday, September 27, 2007

Death where is thy sting: Funerals in an African village

I've been feeling somewhat like a ghoul lately because I've been trying to research what the funerals in my village are like and have been running around town asking people, "Are there going to be any funerals next week?"

"No, Jane," answered the village grandmother that I stay with. "There are no funerals planned for next week or the week after." But this is actually a good thing. It means that, even though I'm not doing first-hand research on this subject, nobody in my favorite village is dying either.

Willingly, I switched to second-hand resources -- one of the village elders whom I knew well and who knew the full 411. "Tell me about funerals," I asked Mma X. "What are they like? Does just the close family come or is everyone in the village invited?"

"The whole village comes and also the neighboring villages too."

"And they have a service in a church?"

"Yes. The program lasts for two and a half or three hours. And then they take the coffin to the graveyard."

"In America, they have open coffins. Is the coffin closed here?"

"Yes. There is a funeral parlor director. He drives the coffin to the graveyard and the family takes a taxi. The rest of the people just walk."

"And after the funeral?"

"They go back to the family's house and dijo -- eat. This always happens on Saturdays. After that the people go home."

"Do you think that the funerals help in the mourning process?"

"Yes. The people who come to the funeral really try to help the family with their grief. And the day after the funeral everything is washed -- the blankets, the clothes and the house. Then they put the deceased person's clothes in a box or suitcase for six months. And after the six months are over, the uncle comes and takes it all away."

"What does he do with it?"

"The uncle can do whatever he wants with it. And after six months, all the members of the immediate family cut their hair."

"What about the funeral preparations?"

"They take the corpse to the mortuary and the funeral is held within the week, giving relatives time to come in from the cities where they work."

"How does the mourning family feed all those people? Does everyone bring food? Or does the family save up or go into debt?"

"Funerals are expensive but the whole village helps out. Everyone brings $2 or $5 or any money you have. You just bring it to help out. Someone brings meal or sugar. People bring food. Everyone tries to help out. The family kills a cow."

"So the community uses this opportunity to show support for the grieving family?"

"Yes." So the people of the village do everything they can to help take the sting out of death. "Sentle." Good.

PS: So much for academic research. During the following week, however, the Grim Reaper came to our village and cut a large swath, once again reminding us that, in an African village, death is never very far away and is a grim reality of village life. Nine people died, including one small child (pneumonia), two older men (it was their time), a young man (overdose on drugs), a middle-aged man (infection -- no one said what kind) and my friend's brother who was hit by a car while bicycling along the village's only paved road.

During the whole week before my friend's brother's funeral, the brother's wife, in a traditional expression of grief, took to her bed and covered herself with a blanket while the women of the village came in and out of the room, offering condolences and sitting on a bench next to the bed for hours on end. I too offered the grieving woman condolences and sat on "the mourners' bench" for a time. Women were also out in the yard cooking up the slaughtered meat in large cauldrons and brewing large vats of beer made from mealie-meal, yeast and malt. Friends and relatives came from all the surrounding villages to help sit and mourn. And the men helped too -- carried the firewood for the cauldrons, helped keep the fires going and offered moral support. It was a sad time. It was a sad day. But everyone did what they could to help. I was overwhelmed by the sense of community in this village. Everyone there went out of their way to help everyone else when the chips were down.

I had to leave my favorite village before that next Saturday arrived so I missed all the funerals. But it's just as well. Sometimes it's actually better not to be an outside observer, a wannabe anthropologist -- and this was one of those times.