Last year was the year of babies. This year has been the year of funerals. We have counted in total 7, just in the past month we have attended two and one is coming for the next week, all of them parents of my colleagues.
Death is quite a symbolic happening here, where cultures mix and spirits are well present (or chased away, the bad ones that is). First of all the person dies and he or she stays at the morgue for about 3 weeks until the family gets around the logistics of the celebrations, and the ones far away find their way to the family home. In those 3 weeks heads are braided and clothes are made because the family chooses a pagne for the celebrations. So all the family and close ones wear the same print of pagne (the local cloth) but each their own different design.
Then we start with the vigils, usually three: one that will include a mass from the religion the person was, one that is music-food-chatting with the cadaver there in a very nicely decorated bed-table (usually at the family home), and one only for the close ones when they do all the voodoo rites to the casket and cry together.
Then we have the burial day. There is a mass with the casket, the eulogy is said, and at the end all the family goes to the back and enter the church dancing African style. When they arrive to the casket they dance for the casket. Well, for the person inside the casket. It is their last dance for the person in there. That part is very moving, I always have to hold the tears back when watching the people dance to their moms and dads and sisters and grandmas there. Then the guests do the same but much more briefly, one or two moves and you continue your way back to your sit.
At the cementery only the very close family goes, so I have never gone to one. But instead, we go to where the party is going to be. And man they are parties! Usually in a school playground, they install carps, chairs, tables, and depending on the economic means of the family you either get a small bag with a sandwich and an orange, or you get a three selection buffet meal with wine and sodabi (local palm alcoholic drink that will burn all your throat at the first sip). Music of course and a real celebration. And all the people wearing the same pagne, it is pretty colorful.
Now, there are people who defend the big-death-party tradition as a celebration of the life of the deceased person. There are others who think that the family should have used that money instead to either buy medicines for the person if he/she was sick or to come and visit him/her more when he/she was alive. For others it is a matter of showing off, for others is an opportunity to find comfort in their loved ones. Same as back home, human nature when it comes to important life events (deaths, births, marriages or celebrations) same as the African pagnes, come in all shapes and colors.
But it doesn’t finish there! If you gave a bit of a financial contribution to the family, you will get a souvenir: most likely a plastic bowl or some kind of house/kitchen utensil with the picture and death information of the deceased person. In plastic so no matter how many times you wash it, you will forever see it.
And then if you are lucky, the family will invite you to see the album and the DVD (if they paid for it) of all those moments. It is a very intimate moment because all the brothers/sisters/the widow/grandchildren are there re-living those moments and gossiping a bit also: “look! Cousin Luc came from Parakou!” “and look at Gilda, she has really gained weight!” “ohhhh look at Marie, how nice of her of having come after 2 days of having given birth” “Uncle Jean has really aged, hasn’t he?” from time to time one or two will drop a tear in re-listening the eulogy or the homily through the video and then when they see you it is like if a super star has appeared on TV: “Looooook!!!!! LOOK!!!! There you are!!!!!! Ahhhhh there you are!!!!! YOU WERE THERE!!” of course I was there.
Being Mexican, the day of the deaths is my favorite cultural feast. Having taught the class of 1ere this school term, our program was: Bio-ethics and the value of human life. All these funerals and celebrations of deaths and lives have made me reflect on how different and how similar we are. We Mexicans and Canadians don’t dress in the same print of clothes, we don’t do voodoo rites to our deaths, we don’t do dance procession at church or giveaways with the face of our loved ones printed on them. But same as Africans we have a very deep appreciation for the importance of marking a change in the life of a family, of supporting each other in times of sorrow, and of keeping up appearances. Despite secularization, these life events reconnect our physical and social beings with the spiritual bits of ourselves, making us feel more human. At the end of the day no matter how we dress, where we live, what we eat, to which god we pray or to which rhythms we dance to, we all try to live the best of our life and then we all die. All the same