I have created vivid scenes of my funeral in my mind many, many times. No, I am not imagining or conjuring up scenarios of the manner of my death – good heavens, no – I just imagine what my funeral will look like. Or rather, how I would like my funeral to look like. I don’t enjoy entertaining morbid thoughts any more than the next person, but I am an event planner at heart and I have some definite thoughts about what I want my last event on earth to look, and, more importantly, feel like.
Having attended a few funerals in my time, I can’t help noticing the difference between the funebrial traditions of different cultures around the world. African funerals, in general, tend to be steeped in symbolism and emotion, stemming from superstitions driven by fear. Fear of spirits and the netherworld. African traditional religions believe in the continuation of life after death, the catholic network of the living and the dead, as well as the power of the ancestors, God (by whatever name He/She is called) and the lesser gods. It is believed that our loved ones that have gone ahead of us are still linked to the mortal world. But when it is thought that they are too closely linked to our world, their spirits need to be set free to move on.
I recall the rather fascinating experience during my father’s funeral when his casket was being carried into the family house to be laid in the stateroom to the sound of obonu drums. As a member of a royal family, the obonu drums are something akin to heraldry and my father loved the sound of those drums. As the pallbearers, preceded by the royal dancers crossed the threshold into the courtyard, the pallbearers with the casket on their shoulders involuntarily began to sway to the beat of the drums. The casket seemed to gyrate and convulse like the dancers ahead in the most amazing fashion. Three times, as the foot of the casket got to the entrance of the stateroom, the pallbearers would move backwards, as if pushed, still to the beat of the drums. My father’s spirit had ‘descended’ and was participating in his funeral, insisting on dancing to the beat of the drums. A libation ritual with schnapps was required to beg his spirit to go away. He was told his life on earth was over and much as he wanted to dance, he had to move on. Such phenomena are not unheard of at African funerals. Many years prior, my grandmother – the first Methodist deaconess in Africa – much to her chagrin, was possessed by the spirit of the deceased and began to speak and act just like the person who was lying in state. She never went to another wake keeping or viewing in her life.
Many African funerals will be preceded by the dreadfully formal family meetings and will include the symbolic bathing of the body, a wake-keeping, followed by a funeral service and burial right after and a memorial service the next day. Sometimes, in place of a memorial service there is, among the Gã people of Ghana, what is called adetsianinn meaning ‘the day after [the burial]’, where a visit to the grave is required. The wake is usually where the body is laid in state and is frequently punctuated by wails and people expressing their sorrow and chanting the deceased’s praises. This custom is less popular now, but was useful in ages past before the advent of coroners and mortuaries to prevent premature burial. Adetsianinn was to ensure that the supposed deceased wasn’t buried alive by mistake!
The funeral and burial ceremonies generally follow Christian traditions today, but are very somber events that still manage to be charged with lots of emotion. Probably the most emotional outbursts are during the burial, when the casket is lowered in the ground and a symbolic shovel of dirt is thrown over it. It is the final farewell, where the catharsis occurs.
In other parts of the world – outside of the cultures where the remains are put out for wild dogs and animals to devour – funerals can be almost puritanical: a few close relatives and friends gathered for a short ceremony punctuated by carefully controlled sobs every now and then; an event carefully orchestrated by undertakers and dutifully attended by well-mannered mourners.
I have come away from many such funerals devoid of any cathartic experience or a sense of closure. I have often felt more like an observer than a participant in the grieving process. And I’d like to emphasize that this is not necessarily a bad thing. It just isn’t for me. That is why I dream of exactly how I want my funeral to look and feel like.
As an event producer, I have measured my success against the emotional takeout of the attendees. I love to take my guests through what I call a “tunnel of experience”. Using elements that engage all the senses of sight, sound, touch and even smell and taste, one is able to elicit specific emotions in an audience. And there are many ways of achieving that. I must admit that my style tends to lean towards understated elegance and pageantry with a carefully timed splash of flamboyance.
So I’m sure you’re wondering what I’d want for my funeral. Well, without giving away too many details, it will be unconventional – that’s just me. It will include moments of rapturous joy and moments of desolate sorrow – just because I don’t think funerals should be all mourning. I’d really love to have my biography read in my voice (almost like a virtual simulation of my presence). One of my family’s most prized memorabilia is a cassette recording of my paternal grandmother singing one of her favorite hymns. I know that could throw some people for a loop, but why not?
I’d like to have a full choir singing the most awe-inspiring songs that project your soul to rapturous heights and solos that make your heart ache with love and longing. A South African choral piece would be lovely as would some classical English and Latin hymns. How about being enveloped by the soothing scent of lavender? And everyone leaving with a piece of some of my personal effects; a final parting gift from me to them – not just some printed program book which loses its value in a short period?
Now, for the final hurrah, I really believe in celebrating my death the way I celebrated my life – with highs and lows and explosions, so I’d like to go out with a bang.
Quite literally – a big bang….
For convention, I would settle for a headstone or marker in some cemetery to give loved ones a physical place to refer to as a memorial. But, I’d like to have my ashes scattered in an absolutely fabulous display of stunning fireworks. Yes, like the Fourth of July! The height of drama and spectacle. All of this might be out of the box, I know, but look at it this way: it’s also a brilliant interpretation of Genesis 3:19:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” – King James Version
Goodness knows how hard I’ve had to work in my lifetime, and if I have to return to the ground, why not with some pomp and circumstance? Why go out with a whimper, confined to a coffin and helplessly buried in the ground? Why not go up before I return to earth? Why not go accompanied by a dazzling display of light and a thunderous crescendo? If I am dust, why not have a maelstrom of my dust? The winds will carry me around the world as I become one with Mother Earth. In that great moment, I will be able to ‘sing with all the voices of the mountain’ and ‘paint with all the colours of the wind’. That, for me would be the ultimate symbol of being set free from this mortal body. And, oh – have a party on me, for crying out loud! Pump up the jam!
But until then, we continue this act we call life, entangled like the contortionists we all are, caught up in our individual and collective macabre dance of death.