South Africa is a very communal culture. I see how this rings true in a lot of different areas of life. One especially, is at funerals. Now, before I came to South Africa, I can only remember going to two funerals, they were for my grandfathers. Some may count that as a blessing, only two. But that does not mean that I only know two people who have passed. They were just the only close family members to die. But here, in South Africa, it does not matter how close they are to you, or even if you even knew them well. You go. I learned this the first week I was here. My mom’s uncle died just before I arrived and so that weekend was the funeral. Mom told me we were going. Me, having just arrived and still confused, asked if that would be okay if I went. She looked me straight on and said, “If I died, would you go to my funeral?” A little taken aback, I said, “yes.” “So then you can come to his,” she told me. It does not matter if you knew them, you are there and supporting those who did. Beautiful.
Since then I have attended a handful of funerals. All of which I did not know the person, or met them once for a second, but they were either family members, family members of a friend, a church member, or neighbor.
This past weekend I had the heart wrenching experience of attending the funeral of a friend, a co-worker. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known. I would run into him at school, he worked as a teacher in the blind section, and we would talk as we walked together, arm in arm, because he was blind. He never was angry or sad, always had on a smile and was ready to laugh.
Saturdays are funeral days. I woke at 4 to be at the school by 5, to then catch the bus with other teachers, support staff, and students to ride the hour to his home for the funeral, which began at 6 (all funerals begin at this time). It was like all other funerals that I have been to. It began in a church with a small service where people get up to talk. The small church was packed full of people. It was a beautiful moment when the visually impaired students who came with got up and sang a hymn. Then one of the young girls came up to sing a solo. He was a lovely man who touched many lives. We all processed out of the church and headed to the graveyard, mavhidani. There were so many people that many were not able to see what was happening. The crowd gathers around the spot where he is laid to rest. My heart was warmed when everyone made space for the students to have a front row stand (there are no seats except a tent that is set up at one end with seats for the close family members, like his wife, kids, and parents. Everyone else gathers around standing). They lowered him down, and then mixed the dirt and buried him. Sometimes men from the community will step forward and each take a turn in burying the deceased. Communal. The whole community is there, singing songs, lamenting, leaning on one another, gathering and being together in their loss. It is a beautiful thing, community.
After the burial, everyone heads back to the house to eat. This is where even more community takes place. The neighbors and distant relatives come together the night before and the morning of with their large, LARGE pots and spoons to cook for the entirety of people that attended the funeral, so the mourning family does not have to worry. Everyone then gathers after the burial and stands in line to get food to eat. Once they are full, people usually go and greet the close family members of the one who died, and then they head home.
Funerals are a very hard part of life. But there is a bit of beauty that I see when gathering amongst hundreds of people, singing and lamenting. Community is something that God intended, called for actually, and being in community, seeing community while suffering from loss, makes it all a little more bearable.