Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Book of the Dead

In the west, it often seems as if we live too far away from death. Death is quickly whisked away on its gurneyed journey; the curtain closes, the bleach is poured, the mop rinses away the suffering, the bed is relaid. The ashes (who knows if they are the real powder?) are scattered, the coffin gravely lowered. A vicar or priest is brought in. One sees the dead one’s face all too briefly. Few dare to embrace the marble coldness of dead flesh. And so, when death comes, it knocks us leftways and backways and upways; most of us have lost the knack of rituals and a collective sense of process that will carry us on in life through death. Bereavement turns viciously in on itself; a knife searing the soul with the most profound form of absence; an absence that haunts us from beyond the edge of the imagination.

In Africa, we find ourselves at the other extreme. Death is suffocatingly close, omnipresent, billowing at every corner like hot dust in the air. 50 people in a bus fall off a bridge into water; a spark from a drilled pipeline explodes, incinerating one hundred and fifty, perhaps more. So many faces fade away, crowds of women hold their hands to their heads as the traffic roars by uncomprehending. Anonymous bodies fall back into the hummus. In backrooms, secret illnesses wreak havoc on faces, revealing bones as they erase intentions.

And yet, there is much more to death here than the heart of darkness one might be tempted to articulate. There is passion and defiance and joy in the rituals of death; an embodied almost jubilant acceptance of the ultimate fate. In Nigeria, few are buried in cemeteries; most are buried near the house, in the compound or garden. There is a space of death within the domestic realm, as there used to be in Europe. Many African cultures have much to show us about embracing this mortal coil that we cling to and must leave. What can happen to us when we leave ritual behind, a fortiori what can happen to us when we leave the rituals of death behind, only to rediscover them when it is too late?


Akin 10:39 am  

I when I lived in Nigeria, I refused to attend a boarding school that was in the grounds of a cemetery - literally.

Besides, I had only visited a cemetery thrice ever in Nigeria, then I returned to the UK and found that people visit cemeteries not so much to lay flowers but relax and contemplate as they read the tombstones, some ordinary others breathlessly grand mausoleums.

So, I walked into Brompton Cemetery one summer afternoon and it was like a day in the park, all generations running around as everything else, about time, stood still. Bizarre, I thought, apart from 3 weeks of sleepless nights.

Once we place our loved ones in the cemetery we only revisit 20 years later to, as it were, "turn the body over" - basically, the premise for another Ijebu party.

A funeral director told me the other day that the Dutch are now reverting to burials rather than cremations, because it gives them a place to visit.

It would not be apt to say, let the dead bury the dead at this time.

St Antonym 10:33 pm  

Beautifully written Jeremy.

Beautifully written.

Anonymous,  12:41 pm  

Jeremy, this is so beautiful. your words are a balm to my soul. Yes, we in the west do not think about death as part of life. having recently lost a very very dear friend, I realise that I have no way of dealing with death, with the ensuing grief. It is to your words - about the recent death of uncle and this post- and the Tibitan book of the dead I turn to. Words are like window into our soul.

thank you.

Anonymous,  3:43 pm  

What did you say a while back?.."when I grow up I want to write like Teju Cole"....well you're getting there and compliments from the man himself...
...beautifully put. - BK

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