An African Guide to Death and Mourning

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I heard it over and over again in the U.K..

“They crossed the street and wouldn’t speak to me, after he died.”

“No one would talk to me about it.”

“It was the elephant in the room.”

My patients already wracked with grief found that they had precious few people willing to engage with or understand their predicament.

And then on the other hand:

“I don’t know what to say to my friend who has just lost someone. It’s all a bit too awkward.”

To the latter, I would reply, “You don’t have to know what to say, just call them. Hearing from you is enough.”

Then when Princess Diana died, a Victorian-style hysteria took over the country. The outpouring of grief was unprecedented. This stoic nation well known for keeping a stiff upper lip took to the streets in droves. The most unusual image of young princes being received by crowds, hands clapping as they did not know what else to do to show their solidarity and support.

It turned out that people all over the U.K. when interviewed were actually mourning someone else. It’s sad but outside of the majority world, in countries like the UK., death can be an incredibly isolating experience. Africa as a continent still does death decently.

So when an English boyfriend lost his grandmother, and his father was away on holiday, my African instincts took over. Staring at her empty bed in a hospital ward (an administrative error meant this is how we found out), I asked the nurse if we could see her.

“B-But she’s gone!” The nurse stammered.

“Her body,” I emphasised.

“Nobody ever asks to do that,” she continued, “I mean…”

I interrupted her. “We do. We want to see her.”

My boyfriend was still too stunned to speak.

While we waited four hours for her body to be prepared, I called the funeral home. “Yes, we were having a wake, and yes it meant that her body would need to be taken to her home. Yes we wanted the works complete with formal black cars and the two men who walk ahead of them holding the big sticks (this is literally what I said my own version of shock robbing me of words).”

I drafted the obituary for the local newspaper and found a humanist to conduct the service. (His grandmother was never one for God Botherers as she described it.) The newspaper did not understand why I wanted the details of the funeral printed along with the obituary. “Well how else are people going to know what is happening?” I asked. Eventually even they had to agree. As it turned out there was a really good attendance: people appreciated knowing.

When she was ready, I took my boyfriend to see her body. It was the first dead body he had ever seen. His response was one of peace.

“She’s gone,” he said after awhile.

“Would you like to touch her?”

“Can I?” he whispered.

“You can do anything you like,” I said.

When people’s souls leave (if you believe in souls) what is left is a shell of someone who only resembles the person you knew. It’s clear your loved one is not there anymore. The grieving can begin. Much later he told me how helpful seeing her body had been and how he wished it had been the same for all his other grandparents.

Finally his father who had been halfway up a mountain was located. He wondered what he would have to do, practically speaking.

“Don’t worry,’” I said. “It’s all been taken care of.”

In the end she had a Kenyan funeral in the middle of Shropshire. All the neighbours came to the wake where sherry replaced Busaa (a Kenyan traditional brew) and we celebrated her life. After the service that went ahead complete with a printed funeral program (in Kenya this includes a collection of photos and memories for all attending to keep) we went to the local pub for a get together.

The pub landlord thought it was strange we were paying for all the food and drink for everyone (in Kenya we have funeral committees and everyone chips in so the family is not left with the burden of the cost, but it seems too complicated to explain to my boyfriend’s English family and friends). Everyone agreed she got a thoroughly good send off.

I hadn’t realised what I had been doing until one of her neighbours came to me at the end and holding my hand she said, “We used to do this you know, this is how it used to be. Thank you for reminding me. I thought everyone had forgotten.”

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