I had the privilege last week of participating in the funeral of a student's mother. Funerals are one of the most important social events in this part of Africa and mandatory attendance is required of anyone even closely associated. In many groups, to not attend the funeral of someone you know is a signal that you are a witch, and perhaps responsible for the death. So, let's just say there is a serious social pressure to attend! I, along with several of our students, travelled to his village home where we met his father and uncles and visited the hut where his mother's body was being kept. It is a shock to western eyes and ears to encounter an African funeral rite. Here is my experience:
The day before the funeral, people gather around the home of the deceased, where the body lies in rest. Women, and women only, crowd in a small room around the body and sit on the floor for hours singing laments, specifically here, Christian laments and hymns. To those who visit, it is required they pay respects to the body. So we made our way to the porch. I did not enter the room directly because I was not prepared to wail. You see, anyone going into view the body must suddenly be so overwhelmed with grief that they begin loudly moaning and crying and shouting things like "No, no, mamma, no!" You get the idea. We are normally very quiet in our funeral customs, so this can be unnerving if unprepared. Following a brief viewing and joining in the chorus of what is being sung, the men retreat to the trees to sit on the ground and just be, remaining quiet and respectful for up to three hours. Yes, I said just sitting for three hours. So much of compassion here is not found in words, but in just being. No one offers their profound insight into the purposes of reality and trajedy. They just sit and pray. I was humbled by that kind of respect. Women bring a bowl of nsima (corn mush) and sit it down and we all eat from the same pot, whether you are full or not!
As we parted, I was asked to lead the funeral sermon on the following day. There is a church in this village, but no pastor. So I obliged. The next day we arrived a little late (around noon). People had been gathered for some time, but nothing starts until the preachers get there. After a brief counsel in the hut of one of the village elders, we made our way again to the hut where the body was being kept. We all sat on the dusty ground singing Chichewa hymns. Suddenly, women dressed in their church garb and headwraps, come and get the coffin and begin making a procession toward the shade trees where the funeral will be held. A master of ceremonies is appointed and he begins working through the funeral program. It's 1 p.m. It's 100 degrees. All chiefs who are present are asked to make remarks regarding the deceased. They do, some more long-winded than others. The people have gathered in a circle around the coffin. Waves of people, I'm guessing 1,000 to 1,500 gather in the shades of trees, the eaves of huts, and the hot sun immediately surrounding the coffin. My turn comes. I simply stand where I was seated with 1,000 African men, women, children, goats, and chickens staring at me. I begin with greetings in Chichewa, then read in Chichewa John 11:25-26. I preach for about 10 minutes (in English and added time for translation). I purposefully note that this sermon is for the living. Many present believe the spirit of the deceased is floating around us in the trees and the sermon is an opportunity to preach them into peace. I make clear Christianity's teaching about being absent from the body. I stress the necessity of counting the frailty of life and the goodness of God. It's 2:30. With the sermon finished, everyone makes their way to the trees nearby where people are buried. In the ancient days, trees were sacred ground, reserved for bodies and their spirits. No one cuts trees around the graveyard. Much of that belief remains. At the graveside, there is an entirely new service, complete with songs, remarks, and even a couple of men making political stump speeches. The one I could make out came from a member of the Malawi Congress Party. His party and put up the money for the coffin, so he used the opportunity that afforded to make appeals for his political party in the upcoming elections. Lists of names are then read calling off the amounts of contributions made to the family by visitors. People are quick to desire their name to be read. So much for giving in secret. But at least they give. The funeral is finished. I am asked on behalf of clergy to place a wreath of flowers on the grave. As the service concludes, a heavy rain begins. We flee under its shower to a hut where we sit on the floor. The roof of straw is merely an illusion of protection as the rain continues to drench my suit, hair, and muddy clothes. We are again offered food. iT'S 4:00.
The family is responsible for providing food for all visitors. So, you now see why so many come to funerals - to avoid being accused of being a witch and to get free food and offer political commentary. I wonder: Will anyone come to my funeral?