It’s hard in these coronavirus lockdown days when loved ones die and you can’t be with them at the end and when funerals can’t happen. Christians know it doesn’t really matter for the dead, but for the living. Some funerals are being live-streamed, but every attempt falls short. What can be done?
It occurred to me that a rural community in NW Nigeria might teach us something.
In 2001 I lived for most of a year there amongst the Lelna people helping put together a first C’Lela dictionary just as Bible translation efforts got underway for the language. As we wrestled the 7000-odd dictionary entries into shape, and as we lived amongst the people in towns and villages, we had some insights into daily life in a very different setting from Glasgow, say.
We’d come across example sentences like this “Go and make an effort to get a he-goat for the second burial ceremony.” and definitions like “traditional cock given by the parents from the side of one’s father if the father dies during the second burial ceremony”, or “‘thrown goat’ – used in ritual by drummers at the second burial ceremony”.
wa̱ n. second mourning ceremony, one year after somebody’s death
example: Av ci kind pusina̱v za̱mba̱r, ti guba̱v biki va̱n wa̱a̱.K’Ba̱tksa̱: C’Lela Dictionary 2001
If you have one thousand cowries, it is sufficient for you to organise the second burial ceremony.
This “second burial ceremony” kept coming up. What on earth was it?
Well, as I discovered it does get and stay pretty warm for much of the year in Kebbi State, NW Nigeria, and so when someone dies, there was really no option but to bury them within 24 hours. Things may be changing a little now, but generally the burial will happen before many friends and relatives are even aware the person has died.
Funerals are a big family and community occasion in Africa for a whole host of reasons, and so this practical necessity presents a problem: how do we still honour the dead, and make sure that everyone who should be there has a chance to come and take part in a funeral, with all proper preparation?
Well, as I remember, it’s typically on the first anniversary of the first burial that the second burial ceremony happens. I don’t think they dig up the body or anything, but that’s when everyone gathers around to remember the dearly departed. The year’s delay gives the family time to cripple themselves financially to pay for it (or, more likely, to track down benefactors to cover the costs) and gives everyone something to prepare for and then possibly a sense of closure that everyone can participate in. No-one need be excluded (and thus held in suspicion) by just being too far away.
While much is different for us in covid-19 lockdowns, we may find the Lelna solution is helpful in some way. I’m not really advocating all the traditional drumming, propulsion of goats and sundry traditions, but rather than agonising over inadequate funeral/thanksgiving possibilities, what if we just determined to wait a year and do it properly on the anniversary of the death?
A funeral is something to look forward to; it’s not just an opportunity for looking back. In all the confusion of loss and grief, we need something to work towards to anchor our thoughts. And while grief is often personal and private, we need to grieve as a wider community, not abandoning each other.
Some people hate the idea of funerals, and go only reluctantly. (Many women and children are excluded. The first burial Julie my wife attended was actually last year in Nigeria.) But Christians — and especially Christians burying Christians — actually have all the greater reason not to fear or avoid a funeral. Rather than the vague empty well-wishes, desperate inconsolable sorrow or frivolous distractions of those who have no real hope, a Christian funeral should be different. After all, we’ve just remembered a couple of weeks ago how a man hastily executed was hastily buried with the best efforts but without significant ceremony… and then before anything at all could be done to pay proper respects, the dutiful mourners found the dead had done a runner and brought unexpected joy not just for those who knew him but for everyone who would come to know and trust him.
And so I really think it’s worth us taking time to honour those who God calls home first in these strange times, and possibly borrowing a leaf out of the book of friends in northern Nigeria who have faced such realities longer than we have. The C’Lela term is ‘Wa̱a̱’. And let us use such a time of waiting, to prepare to grieve well, not like those who have no hope. Let’s gather our resources – friends, relatives, stories… our good news, so we can send off our loved ones fittingly, together.
Photos are from a couple of burials/funerals we attended in Nigeria in 2019, where they don’t have the 1-year anniversary. I don’t actually have any pictures of what a D’Lela traditional wa̱a̱ looks like.