I’ve attended more funerals in my Peace Corps service than I did in the entire time I lived in the United States.
In fact, in my first six months of Peace Corps service I had still attended more. It seemed like there was one or two every week.
I still remember my first funeral, which happened on only my second week in the village, as being a somber ceremony like the ones we attend in the United States. I thought I’d see something more exciting and more traditional. Something with chants, dances, and more mystery.
In the end, it wasn’t that much different.
The evening that the person died, a large group of community members congregated at the home of the deceased, where they camped out and sang well into the night (it lasted until 4 a.m.) all while drums are beating.
In the morning, a pastor came to the home where the body was lying in a coffin, people gathered and some scriptures from the bible were read, followed by the pastor giving his interpretation of the cited scripture.
Then, those that wished to approach the coffin and view the body one last time were allowed to do so. Afterward, the coffin’s lid was nailed in place and the coffin was placed onto a truck.
All attendees then followed the truck and casket to the local graveyard. Interestingly, I found out that the cemetery is the one area in the community where trees are never cut down (so in an area that’s been deforested, but has a clump of tall and old trees, that’s a cemetery).
As well, the community will scorn anyone that goes there when not attending a funeral. Even whispers of witchcraft will surface because of a person’s unsanctioned trip to a cemetery.
Once at the cemetery, and next to the hole that has just been dug, the pastor said a few more words, then members of the family addressed those in attendance and thanked them for coming.
Finally, the casket was lowered into the grave and the nearest family member shoveled the first load of dirt into the hole.
It was only at this point where things strayed from what I was familiar with in regard to Western funerals. At this point, women wailed in grief and two even fainted as if the anguish had been bottled up too long and became too heavy to bear.
Once the coffin had been lowered, community members took turns helping to refill the grave. It’s an interesting thing to watch, as some people seemed to feel the need to shovel more and more as a testament to how well they knew the person.
Afterward, a cross was placed, marking the grave. In the case of a child, the plate they used for eating is left.
Once the marking of the grave was completed, people returned to the deceased individual’s home once more for a bite or two to eat and then it was over.
Most funerals I’ve been to here have followed a similar pattern. They’re comparable to ours, but with far more wailing and drumming.
Unlike death in the United States, death in Zambia does not seem to be dwelled upon as heavily. It seems that their cultural norms dictate that once the person has been buried, then it is time to move on.
I don’t know if it is because death here seems more prevalent (life expectancy here is below 50 years) or whether it’s some deep-rooted tradition to move on, but as soon as they’ve returned from the cemetery and eaten then they’re moving on with their lives.
I’ve been told that many years ago there were more traditional funerals (full of dancing, singing, chants, setting the spirits free, and the like), but now most people have converted to Christianity and taken to holding more Christian-based ceremonies.
I should mention the most impressive part of the ceremony: nearly everyone in a community will attend. When asked why, a neighbor of mine said, “It’s because we all would want them to come to ours. Not going would be like an insult.”