7-4 Funeral Rites Part 1: Crying for the Dead Man

We had the chance to see how funerals are done from a close perspective. An oldfala man in our village died at the end of June. He was nice old guy who always smiled and loved to play with his young grandchildren. He will be missed.

He was sick for several months, so his death was no surprise. One of his daughters had him brought to the health center in Melsisi to see what could be done. He died at the health center. Jason and I arrived back in the village from a walkabout to the news of his death. We asked what was going to happen next and we were told that the body would come back and then things would start.

We could hear the entourage coming back with the body for about a quarter of a mile. The first twenty-four hours are for crying. When I say crying, I mean keening, wailing, collapsing on the body sobbing kind of crying. The grief is overwhelming and the noise is literally hair-raising.

Jason had gone up to the nakamal to be with the men, so when the body arrived he joined the mass of men going down to “cry for the deadman.” I went down a little after with one of the other women from the village, as the men were returning to the nakamal. Jason looked a little shell-shocked when I passed him on the road. I shortly figured out why.

The body was laid out in the family’s kitchen. A kitchen is always a kastom house, which means a rectangular building with woven walls about waist high and a slopping thatch roof. The body was on the side away from the door, under the window. They’d set up a small altar with a picture of the Virgin Mary and some candles above his head, but the room was otherwise bare.

Walking into the house was like walking into something out of a ghost story. The wailing sounds like sirens with every person going at a different pitch and frequency. It made all of my hair stand on end and gave me goosebumps. The grief in the room was palpable in a way I have never felt before. Maybe it was the noise, or the number of people crying, I don’t know but I started crying, too.

We left after about fifteen minutes to make room for the next wave of people to come cry. That’s how it works. You go with your village or group and cry, if a group got there right before you, you wait outside until they are done and groups just keep rotating through. The immediate family stays inside or goes out as they wish, but everyone else makes room for anyone who wants to come cry.

The first night is a vigil. It starts when people are getting ready for bed and goes until dawn. The people in the house alternate between praying, crying and singing hymns. They jump from one to the next without much transition time. The men go in shifts to keep the vigil while the women come and go as their family duties allow. Keeping the body company through the night falls to the youngfala, unmarried young men and women, who fill in the gaps and sing until dawn.

At dawn, the crying starts again as each new group of people comes through for their rotation. To come cry, a group of people has to carry a mat or calico to give to the dead man. They lay it over his body and just continue stacking them higher and higher until the burial. If you don’t have something to give, you can’t come grieve.

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