Friday, February 8, 2013
Feeding the five thousand
A funeral. 500 mourners. The body of the deceased on display for the file past. In Ghana it is hard to gauge how many people will turn up. You don’t send invitations after all – you post the day of the funeral in the popular press. Ghana state television also has exceedingly long sections where the obituaries are read out and the place and the time of the funeral are stated. Dress can be critical. Black for an untimely end. White for a ripe old age. Certain mixes representing subtleties of life span and illness.
The problem in Ghana is that people you would never expect to see, turn up. As I have said before, funerals are social imperatives as well as having their obvious, deeply spiritual side. Rather like being one of the five thousand being fed, it is possible to go to a funeral once or twice a week and be fed. No-one is going to question your presence. There is also the widely held conviction among Christians that the more that turn up, the better the acceptance in heaven. It has a prid pro quo element, too. When it comes to your turn to take the bus to that far off land from which none return, everyone will reciprocate and be there for your collection of the ticket and making sure you are seated comfortably with paeans of praise ringing in your ears as the coach draws away.
As a religious ritual, I found the 18thand 19th century hymns dreary. Their view of a just warrior god, smiting his enemies and meting out justice with arcane references to Babylon and the time of David, was surreal. The tunes (Methodist) hardly lifted spirits, even the post-formal ones with a sprightly reggae beat from the all purpose electronic music-box. On top of this, the bishop, rather than spending time on the biography of the deceased, chose to vilify Christianity’s competitors, highlighting ‘universalism’ which he defined as allowing everyone from any other religion into heaven. This could not be. His God was very particular and certainly wouldn’t admit into the vaulted reaches of heaven, those who strove under the base illusions of karma and reincarnation.
What was moving was the reverence for the dead and the desire to venerate the departed in her last moments as an intact person (no scattered ashes, yet.) The very elderly, some a decade older than the 82 year old deceased, filed past her on walking sticks and in wheelchairs, gazing upon her embalmed and not-too recognizable features, seeing in her marble austerity their own faces and their own ends of days. To some extent it raised a celebratory breath in my lungs, despite the grim solemnity of the proceedings. It was stirring and authentic.
There are blogs before this one that suggest we write living wills, choreograph our endings and decide exactly how much of our mix of good, bad and indifferent should be the subject of tributes. This might be in a church, mosque, temple or synagogue or a venue of humanist irreverence. Choose your hymns NOW, or your classical pieces, or your rock anthems, write your autobiographical parting or record it– the last everyone will hear from you about your life; what joys and tribulations you are leaving behind. Decide on your mode of transport to infinite oblivion or the golden-lit, crystal sea beaches and verdant pastures of paradise and give your mourners a break. Liberate them from mouthing homilies and glossing uncomfortable truths. Let them say what they actually think. That is the mark of a true celebration of a life.