The news reached us the morning after I posted my last story. Three friends of my brother-in-law had been killed in a highway traffic accident during the prior evening’s rush hour. One friend, his closest, had been injured and was in critical condition. I had met two of the boys in passing on one or two occasions.
Upon hearing the news, I think I reacted as would have any typical American—I let out a sigh, sunk in my face, and vowed to remember to send cards and flowers.
My husband, on the other hand, immediately re-arranged his daily plans to spend time with the family, noting that he would need to stop by the wholesale club to stock up on water and food …
“—but BK,” I said, “Do you even know the family?”
“I know they can’t be left alone,” was his reply.
Death, like other life events such as marriages and childbirth, exposes the differences between our Ethiopian and American cultures. The trick to avoiding friction is to be patient, and to ask a lot of questions: Q: Wouldn’t they want to be around close family only? A: We are their family.
On the first day of funerals, a double ceremony for two of the boys, I couldn’t find a notice in any of the community newspapers. Through word-of-mouth, however, BK learned that it would be at “10 or 11” in the morning at our neighborhood Ethiopian Orthodox Church. When we arrived, BK quietly removed his shoes and entered –he did so too quickly, and I had forgotten to ask him two questions: Was I supposed to follow him? Were we to sit on the same side or opposite sides?
See, in the few times that I have attended Sunday service there, I have always stayed outside the building, listening to the Ge’ez (an ancient Biblical language, analogous to Latin in many respects) piped over through external speakers. I really didn’t know if it had been a crowd-overflow thing, or if the inside were reserved for faithful followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith.
I hesitated, not wanting to be presumptuous, but once I entered, I was relieved to see BK sitting next to his sisters. Woubie helped me adjust my netella so that the non-white part covered my head—opposite from the way we wear the head coverings during joyous celebrations. Other than the language, the ceremony seemed (well, sort of) similar to a Roman Catholic one.
The scene at the burial ground, however, was very new to me. We joined a crowd of more than 200 by my conservative count, and watched as one of the mothers rolled on the grass, stretching her arms as if trying to embrace her child’s casket. The families had framed portraits of the boys, and folks exchanged turns, carrying them and kissing them.
I stood quietly, waiting for the ceremony to “start,” but eventually realized that it already had. Everyone around me cried freely—even the men. There were no attempts to push back tears or cover them with dark sunglasses. Woubie explained that this would be the last chance for anyone to grieve, that after this day, no one would be allowed to be sad—even in private. So this was it.
After a long, long while, the caskets were lowered into the Earth, and as that happened, the decibel level rose to ranks competitive with those of popular rock concerts—and then it ended.
There would be days to remember the dead at milestones of forty days, and at a year. More than forty days have passed now, but it took me a while to synthesize it into words. I could have skipped over it entirely, continuing to write about spices and pop-culture, but even death deserves some attention now and then.