Funerals in Zambia are a full sensory experience. What you see is hundreds of people, men to one side dressed in nice slacks and shirts, women to one side in multicolor sea of chitenge wrappers as skirts and as head wraps. You see children running around as if nothing has happened. If it’s the night before the burial you will also see reed mats laid out in the yard carefully surrounding large camp fires, set out for the village to sleep on overnight. You hear the haunting sound of women wailing loudly, there seems to be a certain pattern to who wails and for how long but the women will tell you its just when you are feeling sad. You also hear the eerie silence turn to laugher and talking as the night progresses, the longer the village is sleeping in the yard before the burial the more relaxed everyone becomes. You smell the wood burning, and you can detect the nshima’s familiar scent as a enormous amount is being prepared. And you can feel metaphorically at least this sense of sadness but also comfort and support.
Everyone is there; people come from all corners of the village come to stay. Rain, cold, or blistering heat people will sleep outside in the yard to “comfort” the family in morning. There is no set time in which to bury the body, until the whole family can travel there, the body is kept in the house. If there is a town nearby though, health officials will hold the body until burial. During the time between the death and the burial gifts are continuously brought – mostly food; meali-meal, saladi, tomatoes, beans. When I attended the funeral of a student of mine, I felt and immense sadness looking at my bottle of saladi and cups of beans thinking “so that’s what a child’s life amounts to?”.
If the deceased is a member of the church, the burial has a decidedly more theatrical air. During the nights staying over, the church will bring large drums made from wood, and animal skins. They will lead the visitors in songs, dances and prayers all night - you can hear it from almost anywhere. When the funeral comes there is a long sermon led, for the funerals I attended the themes spoken about were choice and acceptance. The casket generally made from a simple pin sits in the middle of the compound and everyone tries to find a place to see the center. The men sit on chairs and wooden stools, the women on chitenges, reed mats of just the soft ground.
The service is atleast an hour of so, usually including singing and dancing by the church. When it is time to bury the whole village stands and follows the people carrying the casket. At the funerals I attended the graveyard was a good walk, and looking around watching this whole village walking to one place, listening to the women wail, and sing (some collapsing down to the ground as if their legs could not work) I couldn’t help feeling like we were on a pilgrimage. You see school children pick flowers for the grave along the way, this time of year my village every time grabbed bright red ones.
As you reach the burial spot and unmarked bit of earth pre-dug for the burial, people cling to trees and each other. A shorter sermon, and more singing, until the body is carefully placed into the ground. The men using fiber from the insides of trees to steady the descent. This is when it becomes a bit overwhelming. Many of the women start screaming, there wailing takes on a whole new level, some fall the ground and shake, this generally the first time you see tears on people faces, which they quickly try to wipe away and try to return to wailing (crying isn’t considered socially acceptable). The men throw dirt on the grave, when its covered the women come and sing over the grave and pat down the dirt on there knees. At the very end the children put flowers on the unmarked grave and there is one more song, at which time people start to walk back to their homes to continue life as normal.