Thursday, July 16, 2020

Saturday is for funerals

Michael - Thursday

The title is stolen from Unity Dow, an extraordinary woman who has been a lawyer, novelist, sociological researcher, high court judge, and minister of education in Botswana. The book is about the AIDS epidemic that devastated the country. At one time, Botswana had the highest rate of infection of any country in the world, and every Saturday had to be reserved.

Why talk about funerals now? you reasonably ask. Haven't we got enough depressing stuff? Well, funerals have become a big issue in this part of the world at the moment — not because of the deaths from Covid, but because of their role in spreading it. In order to understand why, we need to understand the role of the funeral in many African cultures. It’s the closing of a loop, an event at least as important as any in the deceased’s life, and the point at which that life is celebrated and recognized. And anyone who knew, or knew of, the deceased is expected to attend.

Tswana funeral
In the Setswana culture, for example, after the immediate preparation of the body, elderly persons are dispatched to inform all the relatives. The more personal this is the better. People converge on the home of the dead person from far and wide. Many keep vigil outside the home all night. The news spreads. More people join. Prayers and condolence sermons take place during the day. Relatives and older people known to the family must attend these, and absence is frowned upon. There’s a master of ceremonies for all this.

Traditionally, the night before the funeral, the corpse arrives at the home. Young men are sent to dig the grave, and must then stay away from the body; they have their own fireplace outside the compound, and are known as the “human hyenas”. The next morning, amidst prayers, many mourners stand up and praise the deceased, listing the virtues exhibited. By now it’s not only friends and relatives who are present but the whole village and as many people from beyond as can reach the location. Not only is anyone welcome to attend, but everyone who knew, or knew of, the deceased is expected to attend. And after the burial, the tension and mourning is relieved by a huge feast—the “after tears.” In our book, “A Death in the Family”, Kubu is almost bankrupted by all this!

So now we come to the time of Covid and social distancing. During our initial “hard” lockdown, only family were allowed to travel to, or attend, funerals. (No other ceremonies such as weddings were allowed at all.) Many people regarded this as the most invasive regulation, worse than curfews, and travel and alcohol bans. As things relaxed, up to fifty people were allowed to attend, and travel from anywhere in the country, but parties remained forbidden. However, last weekend the state president berated people for ignoring all of this. It’s not hard to predict the outcomes of these large gatherings when the close family of the deceased might well be infected themselves!

The virus opportunistically makes use of our social customs to its own advantage—whether they be large funerals or spring breaks.

President Ramaphosa doing the imbizo
Last night the president held a “virtual imbizo” – a session where people could use social media or the broadcast media to ask him and his team questions. It was impressive, and if he stuck to the party line, at least he shared his thoughts and made people feel that their input was important. They could be as critical as they liked. (One complained about the limit on the size of funerals!) Can you imagine Donald Trump doing anything like that? He'd have to listen to the question for a start.

We now have 4,500 Covid deaths and over 300,000 cases in total in South Africa—a pretty low death rate by world standards. Unfortunately, the number of excess deaths over what would be normal for the last four months is more like 11,000, pretty much the expected rate. There will be more funerals ahead.

This is all so depressing that I must finish on a more cheerful note. I haven’t read the new White House satire “Make Russia Great Again” by Christopher Buckley, but if the book is as good as the review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post, then it should be a scream. Charles’s last line: “Laughter may not be the best medicine for covid-19, but it’s a heck of a lot better than bleach.”


  1. We were allowed 6 at the crematorium, with an internet link so you could watch the service from home. Then a phenomena started with those who would normally have gone to the funeral lining the route the hearse was taking, socially distanced at the side of the road. And the promise of a remembrance party once restrictions are lifted. Rather touching I thought.

  2. Thank you, Michael. I was so sad to hear in this morning's public radio news a story about the increased spread fo the virus in South Africa. They said nothing about funerals as way that it might be communicated. Having just lost one of my best friends in the world (not to Covid), I can understand on a visceral level the need for people to gather together to comfort each other. BUT I do not understand it in the face of creating more deaths. That is a cultural distinction on my part, I know. Still, all I can do is shake my head.

    Things have improved and the numbers stay low so far for NY, but I have not changed my behavior very much. My goal remains the same; to survive and not to do anything that will endanger my community. That said, for me sanity requires that I laugh at misery as much as possible. I am buying the book, even though it was written by a Buckley.

  3. I tried, but it doesn't seem to have an ebook version at the moment. I hope it makes you smile at least!

    1. I bought the audio book. The first laugh comes in the 30-second front matter, which begins with the usual disclaimer about the depictions being fictional and ends with"any persons finding resemblance between themselves and the persons depicted herein should probably be ashamed." There is an ebook available here in the States. Do you have a Kindle or a Nook? I will be happy to see if I can send you a copy as a gift.

  4. The bystanders approach Caro mentions is a great idea, and I suspect some communities in the US are doing that. Or soon will be. At present, some suburban teachers have arranged to drive by the homes of their students and wave to them lined up on front lawns. Anything to keep up the spirits...which is becoming harder and harder in this United States of Unmitigated Disaster. And yes, I was saddened to see SA join US, Brazil and India in the top four. Stay safe.