Wednesday, February 6, 2008

more on ritual and mourning

on 6/18/2001 i have 5 pages of notes in my journal on the rites and rituals surrounding Yoyo’s burial and mourning. they read like the notes of a participant-observer... one foot firmly planted in objectivity and the other swimming in subjectivity. or an outsider on the inside, so to speak. of all the things i noted during those few days, 3 or 4 things stand out:

-syncretism: a fluid, seamless blending of traditional religious practice with christian symbolism and song. there were also parallels to some muslim practice in both the mourning and burial, though i don't think people were aware of that. just something i noticed and noted. Cameroon is an astoundingly diverse country on many fronts, from its culture to its ecology. "Africa in miniature," as the saying goes. i was starting to experience that, first hand, in this blend of ritual i observed at my host-family's home that week.

-extremes in emotion: people really let loose while mourning. from wailing and flailing in sadness to dancing and singing with joy. two sides of the same coin, i suppose. every time a family member (especially female) arrived from out of town, they'd approach the house and begin to sob. then weep. then wail. some would flail their arms as they wailed and, at the extreme, fall to the ground. madame susanne, yoyo's mother, would often be the one to greet them. also sobbing and weeping. every time a close family member arrived. i'd never seen such regularly repeated sincere expressions of intense emotion.

-restrictions on immediate family: those closest to the deceased had, what seemed to me, many restrictions to abide by. Das, yoyo's brother, couldn't leave the grounds or bathe for the entire week. yoyo's mother and wife – the widow, that is – also couldn't bathe. they slept on the floor outside of the house. in the storeroom near the outdoor kitchen, in this case. for the widow, sleeping on the floor, not bathing, and only eating raw food applies for as long as 9 weeks. though this is only a symbolic remnant of what used to be a much more difficult experience of 9 months of suffering after her husband's death.

all this was an early and intense exposure for me to cameroonian culture. at least this particular aspect of the culture, for this particular part of the country... and for this family. a family i was quickly, but clumsily, learning to become a part of. they couldn't have been more hospitable or considerate in that regard. especially during such a difficult time for them.

which brings me to my last point. it seems counter-intuitive that a family opens its doors to so many people at a time when they would seem to need the most privacy. 7 days of food and festival – full of sadness and joy – punctuated – just a couple of times a day – with a few intimate moments of "down-time," when the family ate together or sat with close friends and relatives.

communal cultures are about support. and in this vulnerable time for the family, the people who came (friends, relatives, neighbors, etc.) were there to support them. they were there for other reasons, as well. to pay their respects. to help bury the body. to join in the rituals... the feasting or praying. but all of this brings support.

ironically, it also means that the family needs more support in attending to all the people who've come to support. to help with all the food and drink. all the ritual and protocol. all the cleaning. so little sleeping. i suppose healing doesn't truly begin until all the rituals cease and people begin to deal with the loss as it affects them in their daily lives.

a poem by emily dickinson comes to mind. the bustle in a house:

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, -

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

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