In June 2011, I posted about my first experience at a Zambian funeral in my community. The following is an addendum to that post.
Eighteen months later, I’ve been to more funerals and paid respects to funeral homes, within my Zambian host family and circle of acquaintances, within the community at large, and even in other towns. On a recent visit to a new volunteer’s home in my district, I had the opportunity to attend her first community funeral with her, explaining the process as best as I was able. I still can’t force myself to wail; it is not my natural way of grieving, and though I’ve toyed with the idea of treating it as an acting exercise, the reality of death seems too grave to be treated lightly. Instead I try to show respect in a natural way, acknowledging that sometimes I just can’t relate. I had a visitor recently, and as we woke up—preparing to catch an early bus to the Provincial capital for a meeting—I heard a moving procession of wailing. “Someone’s just died at the clinic,” I said; my siblings also heard it and confirmed the death, telling me it was the infant child of an acquaintance.
“I have to go,” I told my friend. “I know we’re on our way out, but we need to at least go visit the home.” We placed our packs outside the funeral house, and I directed him to the small assembly of men already congregated by 6:30 a.m. I entered the home, sitting on the floor and bowing my head down with such focus that it took me about ten minutes to recognize two of the women from my host family were on either side of me. I sat in the simple room, deliberating over a hand-made sign that had been hung as a wall decoration which read, “It is not a mistake to be born in a poor family.” In the center of the huddle of women, the dead infant’s mother cried out, “Umwana wane, ndapaapa weni?”—literally, “My child, whom will I carry on my back now?” When I looked up and saw tears rolling out of my host mother’s eyes—her own one-year-old baby on her lap—I was reminded that these women aren’t just grieving out of compassion for their friend. They are communing with her, because they understand. My host mother lost her first-born child, Samuel, years ago. He would have been 17 years old by now. She knows what it means to bury a child; perhaps she is crying for her late son as much as she is crying for her friend’s loss. I can, I hope, have compassion, but I know nothing of what it means to be a mother, and even less what it means to watch your own child precede you in death. The women know, too, that this divides us. That I don't really understand.
After what felt like an appropriate amount of time, I emerged from the house and summoned my visitor. I saw my best friend in the village—who happens to be the next-door neighbor to the funeral house—sitting among the men, and I asked him where the child’s father was. He didn’t know, but as we grabbed our packs to leave, I saw him lying on his side, propped against the adjacent house, alone in his grief. He had helped me with the world map we painted at the school last year, and since then we’d been casual acquaintances. I wanted him to know that I cared, that I had come, even if I couldn’t stay. I didn’t know what was appropriate, but I followed my impulses and walked over to him, urging my friend to go ahead up the road.
Tears are not customarily shed in public, so it was sobering to see this man quietly sobbing. I crouched beside him and gently placed my hand on his back, wanting him to simply feel my presence. After a few moments, I stood and saw his eyes flicker open ever so faintly, acknowledging me. I joined my friend on the dirt road and asked another acquaintance, as we neared the tarmac, if it was OK that I wasn’t staying all day for the funeral. He assured me that by visiting the home, I had done what was expected, and no one would think me disrespectful for leaving to attend a scheduled program. I recently saw the child’s father during a church service, and he gave me a broad smile when we made eye contact; as we left the service and I asked how things were going, he told me everything was just fine. I wasn't shocked by his response; after all, the death was over two weeks ago. Here, we bury, and we move on, at least in the public eye.
I’ve never been so aware of the fragility of life as I am here, nor have I ever wanted so vehemently to live to an old, old age. Funerals here have helped me to remember that we only get a short shot at this endeavor, life. When my shot’s up, my body will return to dust.