Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Saturdays are for Funerals

A few weeks ago I got a call from my counterpart at the clinic that one of our clinic staff had passed away. I wasn't very close to Edwin, but I did see him on a daily basis and it is sad that he is no longer there. I am not sure why he died. He was a little bit older and I know he had been hospitalized for a few days back in January. I think he was prone to seizures or something, so maybe that had something to do with his death. Still it is always sad dealing with someone dying.

Botswana has a high rate of HIV/AIDS so there are many people who die. It has become such a norm for the people of this culture that every weekend there is a funeral going on. Sometimes even multiple funerals in the same village. Funerals here are a little different here than in America. With the death of Edwin at the clinic I got to experience first hand what a funeral is like here in Botswana.

When a person dies the whole village becomes involved in the death preparations, and here in Botswana there are a lot of preparations for the deceased. The body can only be buried on a Saturday. Sometimes they will bury someone on a Sunday but this is not as common. From the day the person dies until the Saturday they are buried the family and community goes into mourning. There are services held every morning and evening at the family's compound until the burial. These services are for prayer and remembrance of the person and so people can come and console the family members. Anytime one is to come to the service there are certain things you have to wear out of respect for the deceased. Women are to wear skirts or dresses and no pants. They have to cover their heads and wear a shawl or a jacket to cover their shoulders. Men are to wear nicer clothes and maker sure to wear some sort of jacket.  I attended the Wednesday evening service for Edwin. It was all in Setswana but there were some prayers said and songs sang and a few words said about Edwin by the priest.

Throughout the week before the burial many community members will come to help out the family. They will come to cook and clean for the elderly family members and just be there as support for the family who has lost a loved one.

The day before the burial, Friday, is a big day. Men in the community will go to the graveyard to help the family dig a grave for the burial. While this is going on other community members, mostly women, will come and help assist with cooking for the day. They have to prepare food to feed the men who helped with the digging and prepare bread and tea for anyone who has come to visit with the family. At some point during the day one Oxen and anywhere from 2-6 goats will be slaughtered. Friday evening there is one last memorial/mourning service. This is when the funeral parlor brings the prepared body to the family's home. Bodies are always buried and never cremated. Most people are buried in caskets. Around 10pm there will be a prayer service and it will last all night long. During the service people pray and mourn for the deceased. This goes on until the morning. During the service some women and men are off preparing food for the next day. The men will be cooking the slaughtered oxen and goats and the women will be making tea, bread, papa, samp, porridge, and vegetables.  Around 1 or 2 am people stop mourning to have some tea and bread. Then around 3am more prayers, words of encouragement and consolation are said and then the community continues with their mourning. At 5am the coffin is opened and people are allowed to go in to see the body and say any last words to the deceased. 6:30am Saturday morning there is one last service before heading to the burial grounds. Here relatives, friends and co-workers talk about the decreased and explain how he died. Although with the stigma that goes along with having HIV/AIDS most of the time the family will not say their loved one died of HIV/AIDS, they will often say they died of flu or a headache or something like that. After some speeches are made about the deceased some family members will read any messages people wrote to be buried with the casket. Then the casket is decorated with the messages and flower arrangements. Some songs are sang and more prayers are said. In most cases church members of the decreased will come dressed in robes to help run the service and the burial proceedings. Once this is done the casket will be carried to the hearse. For Edwin's funeral people from the clinic were chosen to carry the casket, which I though was interesting, because in America mostly male family members carry the casket.

Once the casket is in the hearse everyone drives very slowly, with their hazard lights on out to the burial grounds. The car transporting the priests will be first, then the hearse with the body and most direct family member (eg. Wife, mother, etc.) and then everyone else. Once at the burial grounds no one is allowed to talk. Everyone then gathers around the grave and the family members sit under a tent that has been set up. The casket is brought to the grave. Everyone first prays for the grave and then everyone begins to sing as the casket is lowered into the grave. For Edwin's funeral, there was another community members funeral going on at the same time. Their graves are dug right next to each other so there was a massive amount of people around and when the singing began is was very loud. This  was interesting to see and hear.


Most of the decorations are left on top of the coffin, but they will leave a few flower arrangements to decorate the grave at the end. Once the coffin is in the ground the priest will throw the first handful or soil followed by relatives. Then a few selected community members will shovel the rest of the soil into the ground. While all this is happening the rest of the community members will be signing songs. When the grave starts to be filled they put what is called a shade on top of the grave. This has the name of the deceased, date of birth, date of death and rest in peace on it. It is much like a tombstone, but they use this shade because they believe that they need to provide some shade for the deceased's body to keep them out of the sun. Once all the dirt is piled on top of the grave and a nice mound is made some women will but some flowers and or other things that represent something about the person who died. For example if someone was a farmer they might but a plow in the dirt mound.


After this is done everyone heads back to the family's house. The family then thanks the community for all their assistance during this time of loss. Then everyone eats the food that was prepared the day before. When it's time to eat men are served separately from the women, because they are served seswaa (pounded goat or cow meat) with tripe (goat intestines). Also the younger girls and boys are supposed to serve the elderly and men before they are allowed to get a plate for themselves.

After the funeral the family is supposed to maintain the grave by pulling and weeds and watering any plants that were planted around the grave. If a child dies their mother has to put on a black, green or blue wrap on their head for 3-6 months. If a man dies their spouse has to wear blue, black or green from head to toe for 6 months to a year. If a woman dies her spouse has to wear a jacket and a blue, black or green bandana on their upper arm for 6 months to a year.

As you can see funerals here in Botswana are a big social event where the community comes together to help out the family of the deceased. Anyone is allowed to attend a funeral. They often because a huge event because it is common for people to attend who never even knew the person or their family. I find this to be a little strange because in the US I would never go to a funeral for a person I didn't know or wasn't close to their family. On the other hand it shows how much people look out for each other here and lend a helping hand to those who truly need it.



"Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."  Helen Keller



1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to learn about their funeral customs. I talked to your Dad this afternoon and he told me about the upcoming trip. That sounds exciting!!! Alyssa and Duke (her dog)are visiting from NY & Pinto had fun chasing Duke around.
    I told Tim how great this experience must be for you. Africa seems to be making quite an impression on you and that is a rare and wonderful gift.. . .hope everything is well for the families trip. . . . .. .Bill & Cindy

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