Last weekend we attended our first Mount Frere funeral. The funeral was for the sister of our project manager at Hlomelikusasa. We knew Boniswa’s sister, Pretty, had been sick with diabetes for some time, and had been staying in hospital in Mount Frere. Unfortunately, on January 10th she died, and the funeral was the following weekend. Since we’d never met Pretty, we were surprised to be invited, but happy that Boniswa wanted our moral support.
(sorry for no pics in this post, but we thought it would be rude to shoot at a funeral)
We were nervous to go: what should we wear? What should we bring? How long would it last? Where would it be? etc. What to wear: dresses for girls, anything (even jeans) for boys. What to bring: money–but we didn’t have any! Crap! How long would it be, well, read on…
Themba picked us up in the backie at 9AM and we got out to Mama Ngule’s family’s house at 9:45. Immediately we were ushered into a room where women from the Methodist church were standing together and singing prayers. The music was beautiful. As each song ended, someone would stand up to give a short prayer in Xhosa and then another song would begin. After a while, the ladies dispersed, and Andy and I were a little shocked to see that the coffin was right behind them. Pretty’s Methodist outfit and cane were laid out on top of the coffin, along with some small floral arrangements– less than 10 feet away!
They were running behind schedule, so Andy and I were given an assignment: folding programs and making addendums to it. It was a good way to pass the time and for us to feel a little more useful. Then we passed out the programs to all the mourners that were gathering underneath the tents. All funerals in Mount Frere are held under large tents. Sometimes the tents are white (like the one we had at our wedding) but often they are red, blue, and yellow, like circus tents.
We were told to sit in the second row–right behind the family members and primary mourners–so that a friend of Boniswa’s could translate the ceremony for us. We felt awkward being placed so near the family, surely someone else would’ve preferred the proximity, but we were guests, and guests get a lot of preferential treatment around here.
The ceremony was … intense. The singing was beautiful (if not a little lackluster–apparently they had been singing and praying and dancing the entire night before, without any sleep, and were now doing it again). There were about 5 preachers there, each slightly different. There was the young, attractive preacher who looked bored and like he didn’t want to be there; the fat bald preacher who screamed his sermon into the microphone at an ungodly decibel; another tall, gruff preacher who almost seemed to be hurling prayers like he was in a kung fu movie; and a few others who just seemed to be there for support. The ceremony–interchanging between sermons and anecdotes told by family members and friends–lasted 4 hours (five if you count the time we spent in the small room with the coffin). Then they collected the programs to be buried in the ground with Pretty–apparently that is a tradition, but we don’t know why–and then with a bit more praying and song, they put Pretty in the family plot behind Mama Ngule’s house.
After the ceremony it was time to eat. Reluctantly we sat at the 2nd head table (reluctantly because we didn’t want the special treatment while mostly everyone else had to eat off their laps in chairs scattered around the tent). It was a buffet of mutton, rice, semp, chacalaca, mashed butternut, potatoes, and salad. The food was pretty good (minus the mutton, which we didn’t eat). And Iron Brew, a soda I hadn’t had before. It tasted like cough medicine, and I didn’t like it.
That was it. All in all, a funeral is a funeral. No matter where you are it is full of people celebrating the life, and mourning the death of a loved one. I’d say the biggest difference was those crazy preachers! They were screaming their heads off, but the odd thing was, they were screaming stuff like, “Pretty was a wonderful woman. She had a good life, and never did anything wrong, and so she will be accepted in heaven.” It sounded more like they were telling her to rot in hell!
*Update: It turns out that the kung fu preacher was the husband of another of Boniswa’s sisters. On his way home from the funeral, driving to Port Elizabeth, he was in a terrible car accident–run off the road by another driver, we think. As of now, he has severe spinal chord damage, and cannot talk or move his legs. It is still unclear what will happen.
**Update part II: Unfortunately, Boniswa’s brother-in-law died last night. How sad and aweful for the Ngule’s to have another tragedy so close to the last.