I have been to at least seven funerals in Menya over the last two years. Last week, on the day of one burial, a young man found the belongings of a teenager on the banks of the river. I was there when he first reported his discovery to a small group. They each immediately concluded “oh, he drowned” because there is no other explanation for a person abandoning a bag with some coins. A week later, it seems they were correct. The body has not been found in the swollen, muddy river, but everyone is convinced the boy is dead. On Sunday morning two men came asking me to look on the internet to locate the body.
When someone in Menya dies, the mourners need the body. If a local has moved away–even for decades–and then died, his family will pay any cost to bring his body home. Once the body is secured–or transport is arranged–the family hangs a tarp or two for the mourning. For two or three days, but sometimes more depending on the prestige of the deceased, family and friends will mill about beneath the tarp talking, napping, wailing, sleeping and eating. The elderly are recognized as the best mourners because only they know the proper technique. Their traditional “singing sorry” is reminiscent of The Fairfield Four singing “Lonesome Valley” in O Brother Where Art Thou (video of this coming tomorrow.) In addition to singing and wailing, some will cut themselves (including cutting fingers off) to prove their sorrow.
When sufficient mourning time has passed, there is feast. Rice, greens cooked with bullion cubes, potatoes, and a hint of meat, sometimes. The food is cooked in bulk then distributed in large dishes for groups to gather around and devour.
After the meal, the body is carried (sometimes in a coffin) to the gravesite.
The grave starts with a vertical hole five or six feet deep wide enough for a man to work in, but not long enough for a coffin. At the bottom, a cavity large enough for a coffin is dug horizontally into the wall of the original hole. The assumption is dirt won’t fall on the body/coffin because the cavity’s opening is blocked before the main hole is back-filled.
When the body is carried to the grave, the desperate, chilling screams reach a climax. Women (mostly) scream at the deceased to come back, to not leave us, to tell where he has gone. Some say this is an expression of grief; some say this is a spectacle to appease the spirit of the dead. (If you haven’t already, you can watch this in the video posted on Jan 14.) The screaming continues as the body is placed, or sometimes forced rather violently into it’s tomb. Then it continues while the hole is filled. Then it’s over. And one time, the mourners asked a white guy to take their picture around the grave.