A common occurrence

It is amazing how frequently this seems to happen here, not that I know of any particular reason for it. The first week I was here on this trip, I heard about two different people dying, relatives of people I knew. One of them was the mother of the wife of my host here, Joel. Joel had to take off a day on short notice to go to the funeral–quite understandable. I found out when someone dies here, they have the burial the next day. I was curious about burial practices, so I asked Joel to give me a text, which in linguistics means that he tells me something on a particular topic that I record and then write down. Texts are very helpful for studying both the language and the culture.

My second week here I heard about three more people dying, all relatives of someone I knew. One of them was the mother of Pedru, who helps out here at the translation center. We were invited to the funeral late last Wednesday afternoon. When we got there, the grave had been dug in the side yard of the house, the body was inside the house, and some men were working on a coffin (baxa ‘box’ in Creole), pictured above. The box had already been made out of plywood, but they were covering it in black cloth. There were lots of people patiently sitting or standing around in the shade whom you can’t see in this picture. There are cashew trees all around, and you can see a red cashew fruit over the grave in this picture. Finally the coffin was ready and they moved it in front of the house. The next step was to line the inside of the coffin with the woman’s clothes. Then they brought out the body and meticulously wrapped it in the clothes, which were sheets of cloth. They laid the lid on top, but before nailing it on, a brief funeral began.

This was a Christian funeral, and for about half an hour, three pastors read scriptures in Creole, explained death in Christian terms, gave an evangelistic message, and led in prayer. There were other elements as well, not necessarily invited; but in Balanta culture, death rites are normally handled by men who had undergone a secret rite of passage that they call circumcision, which takes place out in the jungle (matu) over a period of a couple of months. Men who have undergone the circumcision rites wear red knit caps. They are not in this picture, but the men in red hats stepped in to make sure the body was handled properly.

At the end of the funeral, as a pastor was starting to pray, a van pulled up in front of the house with some people arriving a late for the funeral. As soon as the van door opened, a man started wailing loudly as he stepped out and slowly walked around the coffin and into the house, his wails competing for everybody’s attention with the pastor’s prayer. I could see by the particular way he was dressed that this man was preparing to do the prolonged circumcision rites out in a remote place. This is the time of year for that, and it is done in groups. Once he has done the initiation rites involving a lot of secret cultural knowledge, this man will wear a red cap too.

The lid was nailed on the coffin and a team of men carried it a short distance to the grave in the side yard and then delicately laid it at the bottom of the deep hole that had been dug, pictured above. This grave is next to the grave of this woman’s husband, which is the reddish mound of dirt also pictured above, who died three months ago on Christmas day.

I watched for a while as the dirt was being shoveled back into the grave and then walked back to the translation center. I consider it a privilege to witness other cultures like this.

As a postscript, I will tell about something that happened several years ago when Lynn and I were both here in Guinea-Bissau, each working with a different translation team. As soon as we got to Bissau, the start of the work was delayed because the son of one of the members of Lynn’s translation team had died. Then the following week another son of the same man died and Lynn attended the funeral. Tragically, shortly after we finished our time in Guinea-Bissau and returned home, we heard that this man himself had died, whose two sons had died. We heard that some members of his family claimed that these things happened because this man had become a Christian and had quit worshiping the idols.

About David Frank

descriptive linguist, linguistics consultant, translator, editor
This entry was posted in culture, language learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A common occurrence

  1. Newton Frank says:

    Toward the end of the service, when the van pulled up and the man got out and wailed, was this man supposedly a Christian? Did the Christians at the funeral wail? It is sad to hear that there is so much death there.

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