We spent Saturday at a funeral. We had not been to a funeral for several months but could have availed ourselves of an opportunity to attend one each weekend. A lot of people are dying. Most of this is a result of AIDS. At some of these funerals, the underlying cause of death is revealed. At others, it is not.
This time a woman from our church had lost her child. She had told me she was pregnant at an Easter service, brought her baby to the church to be blessed by the pastors which included us, and spoke to me frequently of her concern for the child because of his eczema. But now, at one year, he had cried in the night, breathed funny, and died. Just like that. Maybe meningitis, maybe an asthma attack. She will probably never know.
The funeral followed the form of all others. When we arrived, the women of the household were sitting on the floor in a rondavel with the coffin (in this case a heartbreakingly small one). Each group of entering visitors went around the circle shaking hands, then started a song which everyone joined. One from the group prayed aloud and greetings were exchanged around the room.
After several hours of this, everyone exited the rondavel and with the coffin and proceeded down the hill to the tent where the service would be held. Amid singing and praying, friends and family members spoke, with one person given the special task of explaining the history of the illness. In this case there was not the usual platform for promotion of causes as this child had not participated in any of the things usually promoted--ANC or another party, organisations and leagues, etc...
At this funeral, Joe was pronounced the lead preacher with our pastor translating in such a fluid and dynamic way that they appeared to be thinking the same thoughts. He preached on the resurrection and the place of the deceased in the 'arms of a loving God.' This is important. This child is not now a restless spirit whom the living must appease but has been fully received by a loving God and will one day be with us in the resurrection.
We sang again and the coffin was carried through a parched field to a hole. Our pastor read from 1 Corinthians 15, the coffin was placed in the hole, and family members took turns putting dirt over it.
On the way out of the field there were basins of water in which to wash our hands. We were directed into the rondavel in which all visitors from Mthatha were to eat. Young women served us plates of mutton, samp and beans, beetroot, and potatoes. We had now been there for 5 hours and the cold Coke that was brought out after the salty meal tasted incredible.
At this point, normally everyone makes their exit. But for some reason, on this day, everyone went back into the rondavel where the female family members had begun the day and probably spent the night before. We did another round of handshaking and singing and an old pastor prayed. And then someone began a joyful, joyful song. The mother of the deceased child was smiling and the feeling of a burden lifted was palpable.
This mother will have to go back to her house in town and learn to live every day without her son but, on that day, our purpose had been fulfilled. By sharing her pain, the gathered people had allowed her to smile, even if just for a minute.