Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A time to live.....a time to die....

Death is something I deal with on a weekly, if not daily and sometimes hourly basis.  For that reason I was surprised to realize yesterday that in my two and a half years here, I have never been to a funeral.  I’ve pronounced plenty of people dead, I’ve used my car as a hearse many times, but have yet to observe the whole thing. Until yesterday.

Two nights ago my friend Peter called me to tell me that one of his employees had lost his mother. It was unexpected because the woman had been pretty healthy and suddenly keeled over and was dead.  She had been visiting her family in this village so they needed to get her body back to her own village and I volunteered The Colonel (my car).  They decided to wait to take the body until the next morning. 

The next morning Peter and I took the body, along with as many other people that could cram into my car to a village about 7 miles away.  The women in the back periodically started wailing and singing woeful songs.  After a few miles Peter told me to start blowing my horn continuously every time we reached a village.  Not liking to draw attention to myself I asked why and he explained that this way people would know they were coming with the body and would come for the funeral.  “How do they know who the body is? How do they know what village we’re going to?” “They just know. People have told them.”  The information that is passed to people in the middle of nowhere still amazes me.

We arrived to an assembled crowd in the village, all wailing. I wish I could convey the sound of this wailing through a blog.  I’ve heard it countless times, but it never fails to take my heart and give it a good twist!  I started tearing up.  Death is just so hard!!

 They took the body into a house. When I asked Peter what they were doing, he said that they were washing the body and dressing her in a white dress that had been made that morning by the tailor. She would then be wrapped in the same white material, with her hands and feet tied together.  The wailing continued to come from the house.  While we were waiting someone started beating a drum signifying that the woman had been related to the chief.  A small boy started beating on a tire rim that was strung between two trees, the signal to begin coming to the church. 

After thirty minutes or so, the women came out of the house with some male pallbearers carrying the body.  They made a procession into the church where we had the service.  There were no children present.  They don’t come to funerals.  The pastor briefly spoke about the woman and her faithfulness to the church and then spent 20 minutes or so challenging the congregation to begin financially preparing for their own funerals so they would have nice ones.  No comment. 

The pastor did preach a nice message to we who were left about our life being a vapor and encouraging us to make the most of it.  We sang several mournful songs and the mood was sober.  After the service was over we took up the rear of the procession as they took the body to the cemetery, singing the whole way. 

Cemeteries.  I love cemeteries ( I know, I'm kind of odd) at home but when I came here I noticed that I saw very few.  I think I’ve seen two.  So where do they bury their dead?  I’ll tell you. In the middle of the bush.  We went down a path to the “cemetery” which I definitely wouldn’t have known was there.  It felt like something in a novel....from a hundred years ago. The trees were hung low.  People were gathered around a 4 foot hole that was clearly a grave, and the body was placed beside it.  As I looked around, I noticed mounds of dirt near the grave.  One had the mark of a wooden cross. The other had no marking.  When I asked Peter where the other graves were, he explained that they were all around us, but were in various stages of being reabsorbed into the ground.  No markings. 

The pastor shared a few words and then opened it up if someone else wanted to share.  After the sharing, the singing started again and the body was lowered into the grave. At this point there was some confusion about who was supposed to lower the body into the grave. Some said that women had to lower a woman down, but others said it didn’t matter. A man beside me muttered “Those Limbas. They have too many traditions!” (Limba is one of the tribes here).  Since three men had already descended into the grave, they let it slide and moved on. The pastor remarked that the younger generation was so bold, but the older people were still afraid to touch a dead body.

After the body was laid into the grave (no casket….just the covered body), her oldest son (Peter’s employee) took a small amount of dirt and threw it into the grave.  Then the men took large sticks, some looked like small trees, and put it over the grave.  They covered the opening completely. Then everyone started taking branches and leaves and putting them over the sticks.  Peter explained that they wanted to make sure that the dirt wouldn’t be directly on top of the body.  Then, as the sticks start to decay they will fall into the hole and all will be absorbed into the earth.  After they packed the dirt on top, we began the procession back to the town.

When we arrived, there were many people assembled under a tarp.  Peter explained that they were deciding when they would do the next gathering.  Because we don’t have refrigeration here, funerals must happen quickly to prevent well….you know. For that reason, they often have another time of remembering for the deceased either 3, 7 or 40 days from the funeral.  The family originally decided on 40 days until someone reminded them that that would be right after Ramadan and they would be spending a lot of money during Ramadan. Would they have money for the funeral then?  See, as I learned….funerals here are a big deal!  If a funeral isn’t done correctly, people will talk!   As the eldest son, Peter’s employee was responsible for paying for most of the people to get to the village and was expected to feed them as well. He said that in big towns some people rely on funerals for their daily bread. They will listen for the sound of a funeral and go there for the food, occasionally hitting up more than one in a day!

As Peter and I were waiting for the meeting to finish, a woman passed by and said, “Thank God that woman gave birth to Idrissa (Peter’s employee). If it wasn’t for him they would have had nothing!!”  I asked Peter why people wouldn’t just be able to understand that they were poor and didn’t have money to feed all these people but he said that if they didn’t have the money they would need to borrow it in order not to bring shame upon the family.  Yikes!!  That's a lot of pressure in your time of grief!

When the meeting was over we crammed about 15 women into my car and headed back.  Not to waste a trip, I loaded up 20 bags of charcoal on the top of my car for another friend of mine. When we stopped to pick up the charcoal I realized that one of the women we had with us was…..rather intoxicated.  The other women said that she had been drinking most of the time during the funeral.  Well, they took to goading her and she didn’t love it. She got so mad that she started yelling and saying she wanted us to just leave her there, and she was going to walk. When Peter told her he couldn’t do that and shut the door, she started cursing us and telling us she was going to take Peter to the chief.  The women kept goading her and she ended up slapping a bunch of them.  They started agreeing, saying we should just drop her on the road! J  We made it back without further incident and I was glad I got to help out a friend and witness my first Sierra Leonean funeral.  I wonder if things here will ever start to feel "normal."???

1 comment:

  1. Hello Emily... I've been reading through your blog, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I would love to chat with you my ties to Sierra Leone, and how to make it better. Email me at Arthur.stuart10 [at]