Grief. Ritual.

Last week we had the privilege to again spend time at a funeral.  This time it was a family member of one of the guys who sometimes picks up some work with us. We’ve now become regular fixtures at funerals and there no longer seems to be murmurings or surprise that white people are at a funeral. We know our place and they know ours.

The regularity of these events is precipitated by a multitude of factors: poor health facilities; poor nutrition; poor sanitation; STD’s; Malaria; poor health education etc. People die often and people die quickly.  It doesn’t mean that the grief is any less.  Just because people are practiced at seeing people die doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

There is though a multitude of rituals and rules surrounding death and funerals, and I think these are an important part of the process that allows Yawo people to function in this climate of high mortality. Everyone knows their role to play when it comes to grief and death. Everyone knows when it is appropriate to express the screams and tears of pain and when it is not appropriate. Everyone knows where they should sit and where they should go and when.  At a time when emotions are shredded and everything is raw at least people don’t need to second guess what is or isn’t appropriate – it has been ingrained through time and experience. Funerals are a sombre time of loss – there is no confusion.


I often find myself contrasting this to our culture in Australia. Thank God that we are not practiced and death of close family and friends is a rare experience. We often though dispense of the ritual and that can leave us unsure and exposed at an already difficult time. I have memories of my brothers funeral, now almost 12 years ago, not knowing what was expected of me or what was appropriate and when. Half the time our culture cant even admit that death is sad! We want to call funerals by another name: “celebrations of life”. I don’t think this is inherently bad, we just have no consistency, no rules, no cultural ritual by which to learn and help us contain events and emotions. Our expression of individualism has robbed us of shared community standards that guide and direct us in difficult times.

I don’t think the Yawo have it all correct. They could have more compassion – display more empathy for those most affected. Again, this may be an artefact of the regularity of death and funerals, a type of compassion fatigue in the very truest sense. The experience of another culture helps to illuminate our own – it shows us our strengths and weakness and does the same in the other. I think this is one of the beautiful things of Gods created diversity: we all have something to bring to the table that brings a fuller experience of this life.


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