This is part 2 of two parts, due to length. The first half of this essay was previously published on this site.
She was 72 and the grandmother of my friend. That is really all I knew about this woman, but I tried to envision who she was. I am sure she cooked good papa, never left Lesotho and raised a handful of kids. The ending to her life, especially at that age in this country, is beyond tragic. All funerals are sad, but the last few that I’ve been to have been seeped in disappointment and grief. Nearly two years ago, the anniversary of such comes next month, I was forced to say goodbye to my 26-year-old friend who thought she was on the adventure of a lifetime and no one would ever imagine that it would be her last. And, before that, I could barely keep my head up at the funeral of my uncle, taken by addiction. His three young children are stronger than I’ll ever be. That day, I was at the funeral of woman whose life was ended by another. I had never been to one of those and, whether I knew her or not, it was deeply sad.
At times, I tried to read the faces of the Basotho present. Were they sad? Were they angry? Were they tired or bored? Basotho rarely show emotion. In fact, the only crying came from a person designated to weep at certain parts of the service. Her wails seemed forced, although I couldn’t see her face, until she gasped for air and her throat turned over like real sobbing.
One person I really tried to read was another teacher. Earlier that week, she told me her father died, as if it had the same equivalence to, “I lost my shoe.” Again, I didn’t know how to react. But here she was at this funeral to support a friend, knowing she would do the same with her father the following weekend. Incredible.
Once the service concluded, we walked about 10 minutes to the burial site. What was striking to me was how much this part resembled an American funeral. The casket was set on shiny silver bars and there was a velvet curtain bellow it, hiding the gap from the wooden box to the rectangle hole. There was even a small shaded tent with four covered chairs for family. It was like any other funeral I had been to.
The difference came when the coffin was lowered into the ground. At home, the casket is usually left for some cemetery and funeral home workers to take care of as family and friends retreat back to the church for potato salad, Jell-o and ham sandwiches with butter. Here, though, they watch as it is lowered into the ground and male family members take turns dumping dirt into the grave, some tossing the shovel onto the gravel pit with disgust to say, “This shouldn’t be like this.”
I know why we don’t do this in America. The thump of the dirt as it hits the coffin is by far the worst sound in the world. It isn’t a sweet goodbye or one last kiss. It is the sound of done, over, finished.
On the way back to the house, Ken and I greeted. I saw him from afar and heard him speak at the funeral, although I didn’t understand it. We barely said anything, instead doing the Basotho handshake, as I put my left hand under my right forearm to show respect. He walked with the other teachers and I, quiet mostly. Until, in Sesotho, he said, “I am happy to see you. So much. So much. So much.” It was the kindest gesture to him that his colleagues came to the funeral. It meant the same as it would if your grandmother died and four people from your work showed up. It’s makes grieving fell less … less lonely.
As the foreigner who is oblivious to almost everything, I am a high source of entertainment. And my role didn’t cease in this somber setting. The teachers asked me if I was going to get a blanket sometime soon. Almost everyone at the funeral was wearing the traditional blankets. Basotho wear these blankets, which come in several different patterns, safety pinned at the neck, almost like a cape. It seemed strange until I tried one. They are so warm. Basically, this culture gives you permission, even encourages, to cuddle in a blanket all day. It is fantastic. They are expensive, so I haven’t bought one yet, but will mostly definitely do so before leaving. We were discussing which type I should get when I mentioned that I wanted one of the gray ones. All the teachers started to giggle. “Like the herd boys?!” they roared. Even at funerals, I am great comic relief. I didn’t care, though. Ken deserved to laugh.
Just like funerals at home, it was time to eat. The woman I walked with, the one wearing the maroon dress and hat, belonged to a funeral society. Members of these societies, including my host mother, pay annual dues and help with funeral preparations, such as the casket, food and mortuary services. When you pass, your dues help pay for your funeral. If you don’t belong to a society, a friend told me, then your family must do and pay for it all. It seems like a worthy investment to not put that burden on your family.
Ken was so excited for us to be there, he allowed us to sit in the VIP section. There is the food line for most attendees and then there is the special line, with better food, for important people. One of the teachers told me, “I hate being in the VIP,” probably the first time anyone has ever said that. Her reasoning? The food may be better, but it takes longer. Well, it didn’t seem so long and we were in line.
Unlike the other line that gets Styrofoam containers, we were handed real plates. The woman handing ceramics dishes did so in a rushed fashion until she got to me. She paused. I greeted her softly, but cheerful. She returned the greeting and told me to take a plate. It was Ken’s mother, the daughter of the deceased. It must have startled her to see me. My presence was unusual, even if Lesotho was more like Niger and white people were uncommon. But they are in Lesotho, especially where I live a few hours from Maseru. Lesotho is not South Africa, whose apartheid did not end that long ago, but racial tensions are still high here. White people are usually in Maseru, eating fancy food and driving fancy cars. They are not in rural villages near the mountains attending funerals. They just aren’t.
We filled our plates with goat meat, rice, some kind of pea salad, potatoes, beetroot and pumpkin. As the teachers chatted in Sesotho, I wondered about my own funeral and what I want to happen at it. I thought it would be a good idea to write it down and then update it every few years, keeping track of the changes. At this point in my life, it’s weird. It includes a memorial service that is a Heather storytelling event, with prizes for the best story and, since I refuse to be buried because I think it is absolutely wasteful to spend thousands of dollars on a box you put in the ground, my friends and family will each get a vile of my ashes that they can spread anywhere they think I am.
Once stuffed, we said our goodbyes and headed back to village. Before that though, we stopped at the house of the chief. Dying in the same incident, his funeral was the weekend before and his wife used to work at my school. We approached a small compound with a young girl washing and a baby playing in the dirt. A woman came out of a small hut and led us into the main house. She was wearing a piece of navy fabric pinned at the neck and a navy head wrap, the cloth of mourning that she is to wear for six months. I half-heartedly listened as the women talked, thinking this woman smiles too much for a woman who just buried her husband. Again, stronger than I.
After a short time, we said our goodbyes and started the journey home. I watched the deep sky and sheep grazing over the rolling landscape. After 11 months, I am still startled by how beautiful it is here.
I was thankful that I decided to attend the funeral, because of the culture experience but mostly because of what it meant to Ken. I learned a lot and I gave myself over to this culture. Still, I did the right thing by supporting a friend. In any culture, that is the only way to do things.