Growing up I thought adults were stoic and overly formal about grief, but I had never lost anyone in a way that allowed me to own some loss and grief of my own. Now having lost 3 people in my young adult life that were significantly close to me so that I felt their loss, I finally understand how effective and efficient the African grieving system is. It is far from perfect, as most funerals have dramas of their own. But it is deigned to deal with the loss head on and comfort the grieving.
The first step is the way people rally together when someone dies. It's not about how well you knew the deceased or how significant you are to those remaining, but that grief befalls us all at some point and there is comfort in people being around, either to keep you busy or distracted, or to make you believe that the deceased was well loved. People do their best to pool resources for a dignified send off and will do their best to make sure the affected family is not left alone during that time.
Second is the process of greeting and touching the hands of all other mourners. It can be a great health risk in times of flu and cholera, but also a comforting reminder that while we have lost one, there are still so many alive. Along with the hand shaking come the perfunctory words 'we meet with this grief' and the response 'it's happened' or 'we have seen it'. Once again, done without much pomp but so significant in firstly allowing those who suffered the immediate loss to absolve others of responsibility for the death, and receiving the acknowledgement for their loss. But more than that, constantly having to say 'it has happened' allows those who grieve to accept the death. It may not happen instantly and much pain remains after a funeral. But acknowledging the death yourself over and over helps you to accept that your loved one is truly gone. That death is a part of our lives and that while life goes on, other people really do care about what you're going through.
Thirdly, the tedium of the speeches at the gravesite gives us time to remember our loved one all together and say goodbye with our words and our tears. It also gives a chance to the family to highlight to everyone, especially the haters, that their loved one has been laid to rest with dignity, no matter what life they lived or what death they died.
After that we all go home together and wash hands at the entrance of the home, firstly to deal with that health risk from shaking hands all morning, to washing off the work we will have done, to preparing to share a meal together. Food is significant in all cultures and I believe it's significant at a funeral not just for nourishment after working and crying hard, but also to remind us to celebrate the life of the deceased. After the body has been put in the ground and bid farewell according to whatever religion is ascribed to (usually with prayer in case the Christians are right!), there is more of an atmosphere of celebration. Despite the sadness, funerals bring family and friends together and provide a platform for catching up and figuring out new relationships. This too is important. The final triumph of many deceased people is that bringing people together.
I have yet to be part of proceedings after a funeral such as reading of wills and sharing of clothes and memorials, so I'm not sure what they add to the mix.
A final note is on the dress code of funerals. I used to wonder why women had to cover up and men had to be decent (no shorts or slops) and I realized that its to keep the focus on the task at hand. Head scarfs often come off when it's time to eat and hang out afterwards but during the funeral and the preceding mourning gatherings focus shouldn't be brought onto the individual but on the purpose of their presence.
So that's what I've learnt. It may not be truly accurate but it's key to me as I grow up as an African in Africa, learning how to piece together the logic of our parents who don't explain these things but teach us by taking us along and showing us. I hope I'll be able to put these things into words for our children who are growing up in a world of words and will be so much more challenged than we are.