A deathly blog.

Aug 8, 2022

Staff meetings are never vanilla, whether in corporate, SME’s, church and most certainly not at the Recovery Lodge!

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Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789 that one can be certain of two things in life, and these are death and taxes.

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In Africa, we are indeed certain about death, about taxes and the certainty that the government will find creative (or not so creative) ways of squandering them. In our line of work, with many end of life patients, death is also a regular occurrence for us.

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Every Tuesday just after six in the morning we all gather and have a debriefing of the week-that-was. I suppose because of the nature of our work, we fail miserably to keep topics of discussion simple and to the point, as we use this space to unpack some rather traumatic as well as hilarious moments.

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This week was no different and without it being on the agenda, our discussion veered to how different our beliefs and traditions surrounding death are.. Our staff hold a strange  mix of traditional African, secular, agnostic and Christian beliefs.

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Gift told us that if a black person dies, we won’t be able to get the funeral directors to remove the body unless the family has been there first. I was a bit surprised, but he explained that the family needs to guide the spirit home, otherwise it might get lost.

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It reminded me of a story many years ago, of when my brother had a staff member, Thokozani who died and needed to be taken to KZN. Being young and stupid (he is no longer young) he offered his bakkie to take Thokozani back home and then he could enter the world of the ancestors from there. The recently deceased’s family all traveled on the back of the bakkie and every now and again when my brother drove faster, they would shout from the back that they were losing the spirit and they had to turn around to collect him. He says it was the longest journey of his life, but at least it was successful in the end, as no one ended up being haunted by Thokozani.

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The differences between the cultures are obvious and the way they have merged in the modern world is rather fascinating. In general, when western people hear that someone has died it is a very subdued affair. One of my black friends once said to me: “You whities really don’t take death very seriously, you handle it with way too little drama”.

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We really do it low-key. Everyone will be terribly sad, but you can only tell this by a few tears and some pained expressions (which of course could both be because of hay fever or constipation – who knows) But, what I am trying to say is that despite being sad and upset, the individual will carry on with life and routine as much as humanly possible. If there is a child at school, someone will go and collect the kid, someone will phone the boss to say the person is no longer breathing,  someone will make sure there is food in the fridge, many will send flowers, a few notices will go out on social media. Then in a terribly civilised way the ambulance or funeral parlour will be called to collect the body. Everyone will communicate politely as to when and where the funeral will be. The minister or rabbi will be called and together we will all choose which shade of pastel to use on the little pamphlet for the service.

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There will be some whispered phone calls and suddenly, with limited effort, there will be flowers for the service, a photo presentation put together of the deceased’s life, pastries and egg-mayo sandwiches and endless cups of tea ready to be served.

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The funeral will usually be held towards the end of the week when things are not too hectically busy for those who need to attend, and usually, around lunchtime when most people can sneak off for an hour or two without taking time off work. It will also be held in a church or funeral parlour which is close by to everybody. The main aim of our funeral is that it must be super convenient for absolutely everybody, it must be quick and painless and it must fit into your day without really interfering too much.

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The service should be moving, but not too emotional as one can’t go back to work with mascara streaks running down your face. Don’t get me wrong, you’ve taken time out of your day, so the minister must at least deliver some profound message which will change your life, but it needs to be short, because remember, the eulogy needs to fit into the allotted time too. The eulogy must preferably be inspiring and you should feel terribly lucky that you have known the departed saint (We upgrade even the nastiest of people straight into sainthood the minute they die).

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After the service, you should be rewarded with some delicious snacks, preferably ones that fit into your current eating plan (low carb, high fat is the rage right now) and then, with a few air kisses, off we all go.

Funeral done and dusted. Flowers sent. Dead guy fondly remembered every time you open your cubby hole and see his funeral pamphlet. Mourning completed. All the boxes ticked. Carry on with our busy lives .

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Everything about the death and the funeral and the mourning is very stoic. And then, a few years later, we kick the bucket ourselves from stress induced stomach ulcers and cancers because we walked around with such heartache we never expressed and we never really mourn properly (but let’s unpack that on another day).

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But here in Africa, the tribes do it completely and utterly differently. This is also why I know I am African – I like our way much better (even though I have done it the Western way much more often).

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So, it starts with the phone call right? Someone has to phone the next of kin. Now, I have been in the front row seat many times when the phone call comes (not because of anything mysterious, it is just that most phone calls take place in my office). As I hand over the phone there will be some silence and the next minute the receiver of the bad news will collapse… like full on, fall on your face. No graceful fainting or dying swan move. This is like a physical force that makes you collapse in a heap.

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Then, the wailing starts. Now, if you are sitting somewhere in East-Putney or in the Everglades I can tell you, that unless you have seen an African cry, you have not heard wailing. It is a complete and utter surrender to your emotions, something of which I think our Anglican and Germanic forefathers robbed us, because, I am telling you, white people can’t cry like that. The first few times I saw it I thought a spirit had entered the person via the phone. It was that kind of poltergeist-crazy-shit.

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Once the wailing has stopped, which is usually a very long time and quite inconvenient for the person who sits in the office, the person who heard the bad news is immediately excused from work. There is not even a conversation, explanation or “while I’m away plan”. . Work is done. You do not ask when the person is coming back; in fact, you don’t even get to ask who the hell died. Someone died, and it is a big thing.

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However, remember earlier on I said it is big business? Soon after  the phone call (usually a day or two) the next of kin will come back to work where every single person will donate money. I say it again, every single person. So it does not matter if you hate your co-worker. When someone dies, we are all in it together. So, we all fork out huge amounts of cash.

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Next stop is the society. If you’ve got African blood in your veins you belong to a society. his is similar to a stokvel (if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, it will come up again and then I will explain it properly). If ever you ask someone what their weekend plans are, they will often say that they are going to “the society” It sounds a bit like a secret society, like the free masons or a nasty cult, but it is not. It is African insurance: a group of you get together every month, have a little party and then pay money to the head honcho of the society. Head honcho hopefully does not go off and spend your money, but keeps it safe and sound, either in a bank, in an investment policy or buried in the back yard. Then, when any of your family dies, you get a huge sum of cash very quickly.

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Your investment is safe, as long as head honcho does not steal your money or die.

The funeral planning is rather impressive. No expense is spared. Everybody that has ever met the dead oke will contribute. The society usually pays for busses to transport the family and friends. It pays for a marquee and for the hire of tables and chairs and for some cows that will be sacrificing their lives in honour of the deceased. People take at least a week off and then return back to western civilisation exhausted, but with a feeling that they have properly mourned and gave the loved one a proper send-off into the ancestorial world.

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But this is not where it ends. Three months after the death, everybody will go back and distribute the clothing and belongings of the departed. It is again a chance to talk about the dead and celebrate his or her life whilst going through their things and remembering them. I suppose it is closure and cleansing as you physically get rid of belongings.

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If that is not enough, one year later there is an almighty party called the “tombstone”. It used to be called “the unveiling of the tombstone” but in our slang we just call it “Tombstone”. So then, everybody piles into busses again, goats and cows get slaughtered, coleslaw and beetroot salad gets served and then in the climactic moment, everybody will go to the graveyard and there awaiting you will be a tombstone covered with a sheet. After extensive singing, dancing and ululating, the sheet will be removed and the tombstone will be officially unveiled. In that moment, the spirit of the dead will finally leave this realm and pass to the next and become an official ancestor.

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Now, please understand, I am not an anthropologist. This is what I understand and is based purely on my conversations and experiences. In our morning meeting I asked the other staff what the difference is between a soul and a spirit. In Afrikaans there is quite a big distinction, but I think a way for me to understand the word soul is to replace it with “mind” , as in “people are made up of mind, body and spirit”. Obakeng tried to explain to me that in African religions life does not end with death but rather it carries on in another realm, so as I understand it, the concept of “life” and of “death” are not mutually exclusive concepts and there are no clear dividing lines between them (welcome the ancestors that are forever interfering in my workforce!). I think what I understand is that human existence in African culture is a dynamic, ever evolving process where a life force or power increases and decreases, so it’s almost like you are more alive at some times than at others, like living on level one to five, if I can explain it in gaming language. The concept is put so beautifully in certain African language when sorrow or illness is expressed by saying “We are only living a little”, meaning that the level of life is low.

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Whatever our ways of facing or dealing with death, it is a certainty for all of us, and our work with end of life patients has taught us to fear it less. It is always a great privilege to journey with people in their last days and to find ways to live each day well. Perhaps in the richness of our shared cultural experiences, we can continue to find a way not just to help people die well, but to mourn them better too.

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