Saturday, September 24, 2011

Death of a Tswana

Death is a big deal here in the village, it's also a big business in South Africa. Dealing with death is a three-step process that involves tremendous expense on the part of the deceased's family, as a result funeral cover is probably the single most advertised product on local television.

Step one is a memorial service. The memorial service generally takes place as soon after death as possible. It happens in a gigantic (rented) tent. The whole village is invited. People come and go as they please. Women are expected to wear skirts and cover their hair. At the front of the tent is usually a table for the VIPs, such as the family and any local preachers. Preacher is typically defined as anyone moved by the Spirit to, well, preach. The preaching is frequently interrupted by random intervals of singing. Again, the singing starts whenever anyone is moved by the Spirit to begin singing. Everyone joins in, standing, singing and clapping. The singing is truly awesome. The clapping is unimaginably difficult. The music is simply far more rythmnically difficult than I am accustomed to. Eventually, all this singing and preaching is interrupted by the arrival of food. There is always, always, food. Sometimes it's small, just a magunya or two (fried dough), other times it's quite substantial, pap and spinach and plenty of meat. After the everyone's had their fill, people begin to file out. Unless, of course, they stay behind to either help clean up (women) or continue the cycle of singing and preaching.

Step two is the funeral itself. Funerals always take place on Saturday mornings. They begin at sunrise, usually at 6:30. I have never showed up that early. I usually wander over at 7:00. The giant tent is set up as for a memorial service, with a preacher (or two) busy in the front and rows and rows of plastic chairs squashed into every other available space. Crowds of latecomers (myself included) stand at the back, for hours. It's a good time. Once the preaching is over, the casket is carried out to a waiting hearse (provided by large funeral company, such as Rekathusa) and a large procession begins to the burial site. Sometimes I'm able to hitch a ride, piling into the back of a bakkie with village friends or distant relatives of the deceased from faraway places. Often I trudge through the dirt and sand in my skirt, jacket and scarf. At the cemetery (and there are several in Loopeng), there's a tent for immediate relatives, complete with chairs, and a big hole in the ground that everyone else crowds around. There's more preaching, more singing, and finally, the burial. The casket is lowered into the ground, and then a group of men take shovels and begin filling in the hole to the sound of more singing. This takes some time. I'm always amazed at the stamina of the singers and shovelers. After the dirt come the rocks. The fresh grave is covered by white rocks, placed there by the same men responsible for the filling the grave. Once complete, everyone trudges back to the tent in the yard of the family home. I try to walk pretty fast, because once you get back to the house, and wash your hands in a large communal basin, it's time to stand in, essentially, a very large, ragtag cafeteria line. That's right, there's more food! You get your plate, find a seat, chow down and then hit the road. That great part about funerals is that since they start so early, they end early too. I'm home well before noon, exhausted, but at least back in my own bed.

Step three sometimes never takes place at all, and when it does, it sometimes takes place months or years after the funeral. It's the tombstone unveiling. Similar to a funeral, it starts at dawn. There's preaching and singing. Then there's the trek to the burial site, where there's more preaching and singing, followed by a literal unveiling of the tombstone. A white sheet is lifted, and there it is! Wa-la! Afterwards, it's back to the giant tent for, you guessed it, food. After all the eating comes a short period of rest before the real festivities begin. The festivities in this case are, literally, a party. There's a DJ, loud music, dancing, drinking, and, obviously, more food. The men braai meat over an open flame, and the women cook up giant pots of pap. Everyone who cares to drop by eats, busts a move or two, and leaves.

Basically, a death in the village means a lot of free food for everyone else. It's not a bad way to go, if you ask me.

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