Wisdom from my Gbaya lesson: Fio nɛ wen bíí leŋ. (Death is for everyone.) Funerals happen everywhere, but it seems that I hear about a lot more of them since I have been here. Surely, with a smaller population than the US it can’t be true that more people die. It is true, however, that more people die young or die of things that rarely cause death in the US.
I got the change to go to a funeral Monday. I don’t know all the details about the deceased, but I know he was only 59. He had had two operations for a hernia, but the second was eight months ago, so I wouldn’t think that was the cause of death, but the people I talked to didn’t know any other cause. He was the chief of the neighborhood, so the funeral drew many people. I went because I know one of his sons.
We arrived after the funeral service had started. It followed the Lutheran rite and was led by the pastor of the local church where the deceased had been a member. There were at least 5 choirs present – identifiable by their “robes” (matching outfits). People sat everywhere. A couple of tents had been set up and plastic chairs and benches brought from everywhere. They had huge speakers, a sound system, electric guitar, traditional drums, and a drum set. Music was a big part of the service.
A family member spoke. The man had been a Christian for 42 years. He’d had two wives (not at the same time) and 12 children. He had done much to improve and help the neighborhood. The mayor and other officials (church and governmental) also spoke.
They took up a collection to support the family. Here, many people process up to the offering plates (actually cooking pots in this case) while others passed pots among the seated. There were many, many people.
All of these aspects of this funeral are similar to funerals I have attended in the US. There were, of course, differences. This service was held outside the man’s house. It was in Sango, not English. And, in the middle of liturgy, it started to rain.
When it started to sprinkle, a woman (probably an in-law) took a broom and started “sweeping” the sky. (See picture.) It seemed to me she was trying to sweep away the rain. I asked later and was told that that the in-laws are responsible to make sure that things are done correctly to honor the deceased. Why ever she was doing the “sweeping,” it was to honor him. It didn’t work to stop the rain.
For about ½ hour it POURED rain. People moved under cover and waited. Some moved, in particular, to protect the casket. It was under a make-shift canopy, but with the blowing rain, it had to be protected further. I took a couple of pictures because the puddles and instant mud are amazing. After the rain abated, the pastor came into the open space and continued the service.
As in the US, once the prayers were done, some people – family and those close to him, filed past for a final view of the body. The casket was closed, but there was a door that lifted up so that the face could be viewed through a window.
Then, the casket was lifted by pall bearers and carried to its final resting place. In the US, that would involve going to a cemetery in a hearse, but, in this case, the casket was buried in the concession – behind the house. I asked about burial practices later. It can be anywhere. Sometimes a burial stone is put up. (The picture is from another house not far from my guest house. Beside the stone monument is a relatively new grave, too.) My informant told me that sometimes families bury the body inside the house – so that the loved one is still close, I guess. At other times, it is taken to a separate cemetery.
There was a procession that led the casket. It included a group of women dressed in white. (See picture.) The one in front, who I am pretty sure is the wife of the deceased, carried a wooden rifle. (I asked about that later, too. Depending on the economic means of the family, a real rifle or a wooden one is carried to honor the dead. If it is real, shots may be fired.)
As the pall bearers neared the hole that had been dug, they had difficulties because a small lake of slippery mud had been created by the heavy rain. They persisted and placed the casket. After prayers, including those of the wife, the casket was lowered. More prayers were said and the pastor shoveled in a little dirt. At funerals in the US, the hole is draped and flowers are all around masking the fact that the casket goes into the ground to be buried. It is also not usually lowered until the mourners leave. Here it was different. There were so many people around the grave, though, that the hole could not be completely filled until after people moved.
At this point we left the funeral. I asked some questions about usual funeral practices later. As in the US, a meal is generally provided after the funeral, but often in the evening. How much is offered depends on the means of the family of the deceased.
People here are often buried the day they die or a soon thereafter as possible. Embalming is rare. Caskets can be purchased from Bertoua, a town about three hours away. If a family can’t afford that, the person may be buried without one.
After three days, there is a service for the “Lever de fin de dueil” (lifting of the mourning period). After the liturgy (if the person is Christian), a meal is shared again. People who have come from out of town stay through this third-day service and then leave.
We all honor our dead and mourn their loss to us. I really liked the saying on this t-shirt of one of the pall bearers. “I commit my spirit into your hands.” Ps 31:6.
Here are two pictures of the continuing work at the hospital – primer and then painting the final colors. Almost done!
Next Monday, July 15, I will be leaving Garoua Boulai for Yaoundé. Tuesday I head to Philadelphia! I will be visiting family, friends, and several churches. Who knows when or where the next blog entry will be from…