I think it’s a tabooed subject that plays too big of a role in society to be ignored.
It doesn’t strike up the same awkwardness in the village in America. In Senegal, people have more kids than in the States and the quality of health care is less, so death is a more common occurrence here. My host-mom has had three children die, all girls, with the most recent death being in 2004. The reason (to Mama’s knowledge): sickness. I assume they were all quite curable diseases, the deaths merely the result of having 9 children in a country with a “developing” health care system. And I thought I had it rough losing just one brother.
“Were you sad?” I asked my host brother.
“OUI!” he exclaimed as if my question was dumb.
I asked if he was sad now. He said no. “Se passé, ça c’est le vie”. It happens, that’s life.
True, people die, that’s life, but losing my one brother has shaken me to the bone – flipped my life upside down… forever. I would never say what he just said. Or would I? My brother’s death was pretty recent, but for Mam Guedje, over six year’s has passed since the last time he has had a sibling die. The thought of getting to the point where I think about my brother and say, “That’s life”, frightened me. I want the lessons I have learned from losing my brother to be part of me, to continue to guide me for the rest of my life. Maybe it was the fact that Jared was my only brother, why I grabbed onto him so tightly, loved him so dearly. Perhaps losing him would’ve been different if I had 7, 8, 9 others.
I went to a funeral the other day. It was my host cousin’s whom I have never met. The second funeral I have ever been to and I just so happen to be in Africa. The church was already packed when my host brothers and I arrived. Benches were surrounding the outside of the church. That’s where we sat. “Don’t you guys deserve to be inside with a good view of the ceremony? It’s yall’s cousin after all!” I thought.
But I forgot to take the Senegalese trend of having around 8 or 9 kids into account. My host-brother must have too many cousins to count. All of the sudden, our seats seemed less ridiculous. In fact, I shed more tears than them, having been reminded of my brother’s funeral in 2008. The ceremony seemed more of a social gathering, rather than a place to mourn for the deceased – a place to show your society that you weren’t heartless, though perhaps everyone was genuinely showing respect for the deceased.
After the ceremony, the mob surrounding the casket that was wrapped up in a Senegalese flag, left the church made its way across the bridge to the graveyard – a tiny island made completely of sea shells. I took a stand on the higher part of the hill where I could see over all of the heads and had a clear view of the men with shovels, the rectangular ditch, the pile of sea shells, the tombstone, and the approaching casket. The box was unwrapped and lowered into the hole. One of the men scooped up a shovel full of shells, turned around, and let them rain onto the wooden box, covering up the golden cross painted on the top.
I couldn’t help but thinking that there was another reason why everybody was there at the burial ground, besides to humbly say good bye to a family member. Like me, everybody was so interested in watching this activity even though they didn’t know the person that well.
The funeral for me was a reminder that I am not going to live forever. When you come face to face with death, life becomes pressing. Turn fear into opportunity. When you feel your heart pound in your chest from looking into her eyes, or from being called up to speak in front of an entire Senegalese church, or from having all of your neighbours throw you into a circle of hundreds of people and tell you to dance! Feccal! To turn these scary situations into opportunities instead of using them as excuses to sink back in your chair and let life pass you by. To take your life and and experience everything: This is how we can truly show our respect for the dead!