Monday, September 2, 2013

Death and a Funeral

Two weeks ago, I went to my first Zulu funeral. It was a Saturday like any other. On this particular day, there were 3 funerals happening on the same road as the one we were at. My host father went to one, the Grade 9 teacher I work with went to one, a family friend went to one, I went to one, another volunteer went to one for a learner of his, etc. This is not at all uncommon. Funerals happen here with greater frequency than people going to church, and people spend a lot of time in church here.

I thought I went to my fair share of funerals growing up. I went to three in one year when I was ten years old. That was a tough year for my family. But then I think about what my life would have been like if I'd grown up here, in this part of the country where deaths as a result of car accidents and HIV/AIDS run rampant. Don't get me wrong, not all deaths are HIV-related, but the funeral I attended was a result of the virus.

In a country where more than half the commercials on television at night are trying to get you to sign up for life or funeral coverage, death is very real. The commercials have deals where you can insure up to eight family members by signing up for a monthly plan. It's sad, but the way it's presented makes it into more of a "when" than an "if," as far as coverage goes.

The funeral I went to was for my best volunteer friend's host sister. She was employed as a community health worker. She had two children around my age and one beautiful granddaughter. She found out she was HIV-positive just a few months ago, and passed away just under a month ago as the virus was discovered late and had morphed into AIDS. She made a traced-hand turkey with everyone else to celebrate our first Thanksgiving in South Africa. She had an eye for creativity, loved gardening, and liked wearing hats. She was 49 years young.

The funeral took place on a day with the bluest sky and not a cloud in sight. The wind was strong and the sun was hot. Funerals here (as with all major events) take place under the cover of large white or striped, colored tents. Attire is typically black, but colorful Zulu outfits can sometimes be spotted as well. The bulk of the ceremony consisted of one after the other of friends, family, and co-workers speaking about Sphiwe to the audience gathered.

While I didn't know her all that well, the hardest part for me was seeing her family cry. Her family has become like my second host family here, based on how often I'm at their home and how much we love each other. Seeing the usually smiling Gogo with a solemn and tear-stained face broke my heart. She looked older than I've ever seen her. Seeing her son (who is my age) fall apart, to be cradled by the man sitting next to him really put it into perspective. This is a culture that is defined by men being strong, by the image of the Zulu warrior. Being overcome by emotion like that is not a common occurrence, so that just showed what a big hit the family had taken. And finally, hearing the little girls wailing after they'd been laughing and playing with my hair the night before was just the icing on the cake.

I don't know how it works in the cities, but out here in the bush with our thatched and tin roofs and unpaved roads, cemeteries do not exist. Everyone has a section of their plot of land where the deceased is buried. Some even have tombstones, which is a celebration all its own after the fact, if at all. After the ceremony in the tent, we all walked to the place where the grave had been dug. I have never before seen a coffin lowered into a grave or the sealing off of the coffin from the rest of the grave. I have never before seen such a display of despair and rejoicing; a combination of crying and sadness with singing and celebration. I have never seen men old and young wait patiently for their turn at honoring the deceased by heaving a dozen or so shovels full of dirt into the grave.

At the end of it all, food was served to everyone present. In assembly line fashion, we went down the table filling plates with food for guests sitting under the tent. We asked if we could be of additional help by washing dishes, but there were already too many washers and not enough space. Instead of everyone leaving this job to those hosting, each pitched in to do their part.

This event turned my impression of a funeral upside down. The display of camaraderie was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I feel glad to have shared a few moments with this wonderful woman. I feel sad and scared that if I had grown up here, half of my family could be gone by the time I reach middle school. I feel closer to my second family, and know that their love for each other will keep them strong when times are tough. Rest in Peace.


  1. This was beautifully written, and I can't begin to imagine what it was like to be there. xoxo

  2. My darling daughter, thank you for sharing these life experiences with us. My heart breaks for this wonderful family that we had the pleasure of meeting and spending a day with. Please send our condolences to them, especially Gogo. Stay well and keep writing, you have a fantastic voice! Sending TONS of love, hugs and kisses from home.


  3. WHOO HOO! I finally figured out how to post a comment! I've been trying for MONTHS!!!