June 3, 2008

“The graves are not yet full”

I’m pretty sure I’ve noted this before but one thing that is remarkable about weekends here is that everybody goes to funerals. There are so many people dying, primarily from HIV but also trauma, that seemingly every Saturday there’s a funeral to go to. Dorothy, our Xhosa nurse in Itipini, once told me that sometimes she skips funerals on Saturday and sneaks around town doing her errands because “they are so many funerals there’s no time for my life.”

This past Saturday, I went for the first time to a funeral for someone from Itipini. I realize I’m putting the cart before the horse here because I still haven’t gotten around to posting about the woman who died and how she died. That’s a story I still mean to tell but for now you should know that her name was Nosisi, she was 23, and she had AIDS.

Nosisi was far from the first person I’ve known to have died in my time here but it was the first time I was invited to a funeral and it seemed in poor form to turn down the invitation, given that Nosisi had occupied so much of my attention in her last month alive and that I had no other plans for the day. Along with some people from Itipini, I set out for the funeral. (There were seven adults in my tiny little car, a memorable-enough experience in itself.)

I’m not going to say much about the funeral because it was not nearly the most notable part of the day. It started two hours late, while we waited for a critical mass of people to arrive. It was straightforward and full of singing and words I could only barely understand. They had a brief viewing time and somehow I ended up standing closest to the casket and thus was forced to see Nosisi one last time. She looked peaceful and I could see a hint of the beauty everyone with whom I’ve spoken has mentioned in reference to her. When I knew her, she was emaciated, weak, and pale, with no energy to walk or eat, let alone take care of her appearance.

What made the biggest impression on me was the burial at the grave. I barely know where to begin describing the experience so let me start at the beginning.

When you pull into the graveyard, the first thing that strikes you is all the fresh soil. I haven’t been to a graveside burial in a while and I realize in retrospect my views of such things were heavily influenced by movies, with their manicured green lawns stretching away endlessly around a mourning family in black. Not here. Here, there are so many burials every Saturday, that the soil is always being disturbed and turned. There’s no green, just a pale brown, interrupted by mounds covering fresh graves and big piles next to the empty graves.

The next thing that strikes you is that there’s a traffic jam at the graveyard. There are so many cars trying to get in and out - not just for your funeral (there were only three cars for Nosisi’s) but for the previous funeral(s), the concurrent funeral(s), and the impending funeral(s). It takes a minute to realize you actually have to pay attention to your driving in this graveyard and not just sort of doze off as you can when you’re driving at the half the speed limit, with your hazards flashing, in a funeral procession.

Once you get out of the car and get to the graveside, you realize you’re not at the side of a grave but at the side of graves, plural. For there are so many burials to take place on this particular day, that there are a half-dozen or so empty graves lined up, each about six feet deep, long enough to hold a coffin, and - and this is remarkable - no more than twelve inches apart and separated from the next row by about two feet. Immediately and unbidden, the Hutu Power phrase made infamous during the Rwandan genocide sprang to mind - “the graves are not yet full.” It’s a different context to be sure but the imagery seemed so similar to me.

Empty graves, waiting for coffins. Nosisi’s grave is out of the picture but immediately next to the green-draped one.

Our small crowd gathered round the next available grave. Think, first, of the difficulty of this. There’s a big pile of dirt on one side, a row of graves on the other, and just twelve inches to cram the fifteen or so of us around the grave. Meanwhile, just a few feet away, the previous funeral is just finishing up as a group of men hand-shovel the grave full. Right behind us, not four feet away, a funeral home employee is setting up a tent for the next funeral. About 100 feet away, another funeral, larger, is burying their body. They have a PA system and we can hear everything.

The men on the left in this picture are for Nosisi’s funeral. The men in the right are from the previous funeral.

In that context, you might understand if I say that the graveside service for Nosisi was rather perfunctory and somewhat lacking in the dignity generally accorded these sorts of events. Two men hopped down into the grave while the rest handed them the casket. Prayers were muttered, songs were sung, dirt was tossed, and we all went back to the cars while the men in the group hung back to hand-shovel the grave full. (If you’re wondering, it takes a group of men with two shovels about fifteen to twenty minutes to fill in a six-foot deep grave, roughly three times as long as we spent around the grave.) I was invited to remain for this part but I wasn’t quite ready to live into this part of Xhosa manhood. We left behind a freshly-full grave, with a stone marker with a number on it so the family can find the grave again when - if - they can afford a headstone.

Nosisi is lowered to her final resting place.

The final memory I’ll take away from this day (aside from the excellent food we ate after the burial) is a short interaction I had with Nosisi’s uncle (I think - relational terms are used differently around here than I am used to), who could not have been much older than me. As I was preparing to go, he came up to me and, in halting English, introduced himself. What he really wanted was copies of the pictures I had taken and I told him I’d be happy to give them to him as soon as they were developed. As I turned to go, he grabbed my arm and said, “I like what you…” and paused for a moment looking for the right word “…do today” and smiled at me. I thanked him and left but on the walk to the car I realized it was one of the nicest compliments I had been paid in a long time. His choice of verb was particularly apt after all the thinking I have been doing about the distinction between being and doing, which regular blog readers must be sick of hearing about by now. I had not done anything during the day, except show up at a place where I was not expected to be. I had not been anything special either, except for the same person I am every day. But somehow, by taking her death seriously and taking time to remember her, I had made an impression on this man and, though he doesn’t realize it, he on me.


Amy said...


Remember that Sounding Board I hosted with David? This post had me interested and riveted from the start (not that the other ones didn't!). Thanks for sharing and, ironically, bringing to life this big part of Itipini. Also, enjoy the hammock (no matter the Wx!) for me...I hope to have my own someday!