This morning I watched “Thank You”, the third episode in the sixth season of the Walking Dead. Lots of people died in this episode. People die in every episode really. The post-apocalyptic zombie world is hazardous to the health of anyone who doesn’t have a long-term contract with the show. But today someone that I really liked died; someone who’d weaseled their way into my heart in that way that TV characters tend to do. With a show like the Walking Dead, you learn to hold the people with an open palm. You learn to not get too attached because next week their face may be eaten off by a zombie. Or maybe their leg will be eaten by a cannibalistic human. But I was attached and I cried when this character died. I grieved for the death of a fake person in fake world.
The characters themselves deal with death on a daily basis. They don’t cry anymore. They see death and simply move on.
It’s not real life though. In the West, death is very distant from us. We hold it at arms length and never look too close. I’m 29 years old and I’ve never really seen a dead person.
My great-grandmother died when I was four. I went to her funeral and my mom let me touch her waxy face. But the open casket culture, where the dead are carefully positioned and made to look like they’re just sleeping, that’s not real life either.
In the past couple weeks here on Clove Island I’ve been learning a little bit about how islanders deal with death.
Abraham is the caretaker of the house I rent. His uncle is the owner, but he lives in France. So Abraham ensures that water gets pumped into our cistern on the roof. If we have electricity or plumbing problems, it’s his job to get those fixed. He does a reasonable job and since there are always problems with island houses, we’ve gotten to know him well. He’s very kind. He has a gentle demeanor and I feel comfortable in his presence- an unusual feeling for me around island men.
A few weeks ago, his mother died. It was not unexpected. She’d been sick for a long time. My neighbor, Mable, invited me to go to a ceremony involved in the death rites. Up to this point, while I’ve heard of many people dying and seen the processions, I haven’t been close enough to any of the dead or grieving to be invited. So I had no idea what to expect.
On the appointed day, I dressed in a nice shirt with a “saluva” tied high on my chest. A saluva is a piece of fabric that is sown like a tube. You step into the tube and tie the extra fabric in a knot below your chin. It originally comes from Madagascar, where they tied them around their waist. It was here, in the more conservative culture, that it began to be tied over the chest. This is the culturally acceptable attire for most ceremonies- weddings, prayers and funerals.
Over the saluva I wrapped a shiromani- the equivalent of an Indian sari, but worn over regular clothing. I put on muted make-up and small earrings. Then I met Mable and we took a taxi up the road to the courtyard of a daughter of the dead woman. Before arriving, I asked Mable what I should say. How do I express my condolences? I know of no way to say, “I’m sorry” in local language in the sense of being sorry for someone. She gave me an expression that translates to “I sold you the news.” What??
There were many women sitting around the courtyard. Some were quietly talking to their neighbor. Several ladies tended a fire in the corner of the courtyard where a pot of tea was boiling. I was ushered past all of these women into the house where the family members were sitting.
I lost count of all of Abraham’s siblings. I met cousins. I met his aunts and uncles. Many of them had come from the neighboring French island. Some had traveled as far as France. They were a well-to-do family. They spoke French among themselves and spoke to me in local language- it was rather amusing. They just talked about normal things. There was no crying. To my Western eyes, it didn’t look as though anyone was sad. After giving our greetings to the family, Mable and I went back to the courtyard and sat among the women. A very old lady, back bent from too many years lived in a harsh place, hobbled into the courtyard. She sat in a chair in the middle of all the woman and in a gravelly voice began to recite prayers. “Amens” chorused from the gathered ladies after every phrase that she uttered.
Then Mable told me it was time for us to go. I hadn’t been served any tea or bread like the other ladies. We’d stayed for perhaps 45 minutes. I had no way to place what I had just experienced. I was simply confused.
Later that week, I sat down with two friends and picked their brains on the matter of death. It wasn’t something they were terribly comfortable discussing, but I really wanted to understand at least the outward expressions if not the worldview of islanders.
This is what I learned:
When someone dies on the island, they are taken to a room in the house but the body cannot touch the floor. Flooring is dug up and the body is placed on slats over the hole for the washing. The men go to the mosque while the body is being washed. Special women are paid to wash the body. The women family members pray in the courtyard.
The sheets and clothes of the dead are washed. The body is wrapped in a white linen cloth and placed in a coffin. The men carry the coffin to the cemetery, where paid gravediggers have already dug a hole. Any man can help carry the coffin- not just family members. In fact they believe that you earn points toward heaven if you help carry the coffin. The body must be buried on the day that the person dies. This is Islamic law.
Family members and close friends will stay at the house of the dead person for seven days. They may go to work; they may not. They show their solidarity by staying with the grieving family. On the third day there is a big prayer (this is apparently what I stumbled upon). On the seventh day there is another big prayer and after this family members will return to work.
The official time of grieving lasts for 40 days. Immediate family members should not have any celebrations- marriages are pushed back until after this time. The 40th day after the death, there is a big ceremony where the men pray at the mosque and the women cook a large meal for everyone who comes to show their respect for the dead.
I asked about the expression “I sold you the news”. My friends agreed that I had translated it correctly but it is simply an expression that means, “I share in your suffering; we are together.”
I asked if it was ok to cry. When I lived in Guinea I learned that public displays of emotion, especially crying, was very frowned upon. Women wailed during the funeral procession but that was it. My friends said, yes, it’s ok. Is it ok for men to cry? Yes, sometimes men cry. But it’s much better if they don’t. If the person died, it is God’s will. Therefore, you show your piety by accepting the will of God. Crying and open grief shows that you do not agree with God’s will and that isn’t a good thing.
Just a few short weeks later Mable’s brother or sister (or maybe cousin, or possibly close friend) died. The local word is non-specific. She asked me to go with her to visit the grieving. I agreed, feeling more prepared this time.
I dressed appropriately and we found ourselves in a small room tucked away in an alley. There were a couple old people, one man and a few women, sitting on a mat. Mable and I sat down and they began chatting about normal life things. No one paid me much mind, except to ask Mable a few questions, not knowing I could understand what was being asked. And then we left. We were there perhaps 20 minutes tops. Once again, I was outside my element. That did not fit into what I had learned from my friends.
But I’ve made peace with not knowing. I claim no great knowledge of island culture regarding death. From what I’ve seen, I like the solidarity found here. In America we avoid the grieving. We don’t know what to say, so we say nothing. We don’t know how to act, so we do nothing. We leave the grieving alone in their grief. For seven days after the death, islanders do not leave the side of the grieving. They tangibly show that they are together.
I do not like the pressure to bottle up emotions, however. Maybe they really don’t want to cry. Maybe they have internalized completely the worldview that death is inevitable, what is the point of crying? But if it is an outside pressure of religiosity that prevents them from opening up, then I wholeheartedly disagree with that. We may have this same attitude to some degree in the States, but in general, we acknowledge that it is healthy to cry and express grief aloud. But perhaps islanders live in a world closer to the Walking Dead. There is no real medical care here. Many preventable illnesses are death sentences. There are no real traffic laws and people die in motorcycle and car accidents daily. They try to make their way to the French island and instead drown in the crossing.
Death is natural. We all live with the possibility of death everyday. It is the great equalizer. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape it. We can try to ignore it, but eventually it will catch up to us. In the West, most of us are comfortably separated in our daily lives from this reality. Islanders are not. And so, we approach it differently. There is beauty and pain intermingled in our differences.