Saturday, August 16, 2008

A sad few days

Today I attended the funeral for the daughter of Eleanor, the woman who was the secretary at St. Paul’s when I arrived last year. Nonhlanhla, Eleanor’s daughter, was in an automobile accident about 4 weeks ago. Ironically, she was on her way to a funeral in Nelsprit, SA when the accident occurred. She was taken to a hospital in Johannesburg where she underwent surgery for injuries to her spleen and spinal cord. She was healing and was about to be released last Friday or Saturday when all of a sudden, she passed away. The autopsy showed no reason for her sudden death. She was 38 years old. She had lost her husband in 2004, and left two teenage children.

Evidently news of her accident had been announced during church services at St. Paul’s a few weeks ago but since the announcements are spoken in SiSwati, I didn’t know about it. I found out about it when I was talking with my dear friend, Thoko on Thursday morning. She took me to visit Eleanor in her daughter’s home so I could offer my condolences. We sat on straw mats on the floor of the very nice modern home not far from St. Paul’s. As we approached the house we could hear the singing of hymns and then prayers. This was followed by words of sorrow, joy for Nonhlanhla’s life, discussion of the accident and sudden death. All things you would expect to be discussed. Of course, most of it was spoken in their native tongue, so I mainly listened for the few words I could understand and felt what was being said by the heart felt looks on the people’s faces. Tea was served, and as is the custom here, a plate is passed for people to leave a few emalangeni as they are able to assist with the expenses of the funeral and burial. It was a sad time. People came and went the entire day and into the night. I’m told the order of the visit is repeated each time. Hymns are always sung and then prayers said.

This morning the funeral was at 7:00 am. Most funerals are held early in the morning, sometimes as early as 6:00 am. The sight of the pallbearers lifting the casket out of the van from the funeral home brought immediate tears to my eyes with such vivid memories of the recent funeral of my father. The actual service was very similar in content and length to what we would experience in the United States. The only thing that was different was that here they read the messages on each of the cards that accompany the flower arrangements and once again there was someone standing with an offering plate as we left for people to leave cash as they could. Following the funeral at the church, we all followed in a procession of sorts to the cemetery for the gravesite service. The difference here was that they actually lowered the casket into the ground. Some of the flower arrangements were then placed on the casket and then a few men proceeded to fill the hole up with the dirt as the son and daughter stood by the graveside and watched. Men would shovel some dirt on the casket and then others would get into the hole and stamp it down before more dirt would be added. It was a painfully long process. When I shared that we don’t do that in the US, the cemetery workers do it after we leave, my friends were very surprised. They wanted to know how we would know that someone hadn’t removed the body and stolen the casket. The cemetery also isn’t as manicured as most of ours are. Indeed, there wasn’t any grass and many of the graves were only marked my mounds of dirt without a headstone. In Manzini, this cemetery is next to the garbage dump. They finally put up a fence a few months ago between the dump and the cemetery. Following the service everyone who attends the funeral goes back to the family’s house and is served what I’ve come to know as a traditional meal – rice or semp, chicken or beef, coleslaw, potato salad, beets, greens, and salad.

I was glad I went to show my love and appreciation of all Eleanor did for me when I came to Swaziland. Eleanor was very appreciative of my presence. Please keep the family, especially, Nonhlanhla’s children in your prayers.

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