Meditations on death, grief, and resilience

Rebecca Bacon Ehlers

Among the Gouin people of Burkina Faso, funerals are only held when an old person has died. They are, in a very real way, a celebration of the person’s life and of life in general. People dance and drink millet beer and sing for three nights and two days. It is not unusual to say that you met your husband at a funeral.

I’ve lost count of how many of these village funerals I’ve attended. There have been many, and I consider it a great privilege. The music is beautiful, easy for a human body to move to. In the US people dance together in crowds, too, but there is always the feeling of being watched. A feeling of you, as an individual, on display. Here people dance to express their unity.   I find a place in the crowd and try to feel only what others are also feeling. We concentrate on the places where we overlap. This is a feeling that people here know before words; women dance with babies tied to their backs and the babies sleep soundly there.

In this culture the most important musical instrument is the balafon. Visually it resembles a very large xylophone, and like a xylophone, it’s played with mallets. The keys are made of wood and the sound comes out rich and hollow with a fuzzy vibration that lingers on after the note has been struck. There is no instrument from my culture that can make a comparable sound. Fueled by millet beer the balafonist can play for hours without breaks, which is an impressive feat of human endurance. When I see him around in the village I look at his forearms and think, where does all that energy come from? One would expect them to be much larger than a regular person’s, but this isn’t the case.

The party happens in the family’s courtyard, between and around the buildings that enclose it. In this village as in many across West Africa, homes consist of many small buildings, each with one or two rooms. Each has a purpose, whether it is for cooking, for storage, for sleeping. The friendly swept-dirt courtyard in the center is both the hallway and the living room.

When a funeral descends upon a compound, it establishes an ecosystem of its own. For the length of the celebration daily life is completely disrupted. I wonder how this feels.   There’s a lot to see that is out of the ordinary. Women stand around enormous pots of rice uncarriable by one person, holding wooden spoons tall as a child.   Usually there is somebody there to sell cigarettes, candy, shing goom, which where I’m from is called chewing gum, and shot-sized servings of liquor in plastic packets.   At night there are electric lights everywhere whose glow is weak but harsh, blue in color, smokiness from cigarettes, from cooking fires visible in front of them. The whir of the borrowed generator that powers them is unfamiliar in a village as small as this one.

During large parties like these tide pools of people form in the passageways between the building. In one place exhausted women lie on the ground asleep on mats. In another teenage girls congregate, conscious of themselves, anticipatory. Over there old men sit together without speaking much. Old women are the drunkest people there. Sometimes they make beautiful young men dance with them, but that happens more often at weddings. Their drunkenness is joyful. They wear it like a king’s robes. The sound of the balafon is always present, exerting a gentle pull like gravity.

It’s easy as an outsider not to see the pain at a Burkinabè funeral, but it’s still there. The music and the beer are to help the deceased’s family forget. To forget their grief until its weight has shrunk a little. This is why the funeral lasts three nights.

Very little about Burkinabè funerals is forced. When you want to give condolences to someone you approach them and you say, I want to give you my condolences. And then you be there with them. And you dance and you drink. There is no expectation that you would try to say something profound. Even the idea of that is alien as it so clearly would not make anyone feel better. There is no performance of grief expected. The relatives of the deceased do not perceive their own emotional responses through a filter of guilt.

I have sensed a feeling of relief at Burkinabè funerals. I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but I can’t shake the impression. Anyone who has lived their life in a place like Burkina knows intimately the incredible risk of suffering that attends life as a human being on this planet. When an elder dies there is almost a sense of relief that the person’s life has been long, and a success, and is now encoded by its ending.

Still death is not a riddle that can be solved. There is no such cocoon of tradition for the death of a young person. Not long after my arrival in this place a middle school student drowned in the river. When I visited his family’s courtyard with the other teachers to give condolences, his family seemed dazed, stranded, as though they had suddenly gone blind and were relearning how to move around in the world. There was no ceremony to ease the brutal starkness of the loss. It was just a tragedy.

By contrast I have been to very few American funerals. I know that makes me lucky. I’m back home now, fearful of losing what I learned while I was away. My grandparents have been married for 60 years. They play a few games of Yahtzee every day. They have always done this. They keep track of who wins even though it’s usually my grandmother. She told me that lately she has to play his turns for him sometimes because he gets confused. I know that I don’t yet understand what it’s like to live among these quiet losses.

I worry about her. I worry that she will start to feel like the person she lives with now isn’t the person she lived with for all those years. Mostly I worry that feeling will be terribly lonely. One day she’s complaining about his misunderstandings and I ask her, do you get lonely around here? She looks at me like I’ve asked her if she kept sugar in the freezer. She says, No, I don’t get lonely, I have him.

Rebecca Bacon Ehlers is the founding editor of Culturework Magazine