Thursday, March 26, 2009

Funerals in Uganda

Last Monday (March 2), the Dean of the Cathedral invited us to attend the funeral of a prominent lay reader in his deanery. Being a seminary student, I thought it would be good to experience a Ugandan funeral. It was another interesting experience. When we arrived we were ushered to pews at the front. While we were waiting for the service to begin there was an MC (for lack of a better term) talking to the gathering crowd. His tone seemed upbeat, especially for a funeral, and the music playing in the background had a similar tone. We were already feeling a bit conspicuous as the only white people in the crowd, when the MC switched to English and requested someone to come translate for us because the service was now “an international service.” We appreciated the sentiment, but it is a bit odd having everyone’s attention drawn to you at a funeral where you do not even know the deceased.

Once the service started there was singing, followed by different groups of people—the deceased wife, his brothers, his sisters, his sons, his daughters, grandchildren etc.-- placing flowers on the casket. Most of the rest of the service seemed typical of any Anglican funeral service. There was a short eulogy, a sermon and some prayers. The whole service was about an hour and a half and finished around 11:30. We were surprised at how quick things had been, considering how long services can sometimes be here. The dean then told us that we were going to the graveside, so we figured that we would be home in a couple of hours.

The gravesite was not in a cemetery as is often the case back home. People here fear that the land for public gravesites may be taken over by someone else. Due to this fear many Ugandans are buried on their family’s property, which stays in the family. In this case there were several generations of houses on the property. The property was set up much differently than I expected for a funeral. There were several tents set up for this part of the service— one for the casket, two set up with seating for guests and one for the PA system.

We were quickly ushered into one of the houses on the property and served lunch. When we finished lunch and went outside we were surprised to see a crowd of over 2 000 people! This was far more people than who were at the church service earlier and they were all being served lunch. After everyone had finished eating, speeches were given by family members, neighbours, friends and prominent members of the community. In Uganda, speeches are an important part of every gathering. For important gatherings the speeches can take several hours. For small private gatherings (like being invited for dinner) a few minutes of speeches by the host and the guests is expected. Even knowing this I did not expect the several hours of speeches that occurred at the graveside.

After the speeches, the service moved into more familiar territory. The casket was moved up to its final resting place under some matooke trees. It was lowered into a small concrete vault and the family and guests threw flowers on top of the casket. There were some prayers and then the vault was covered with steel sheeting, which would later be covered in concrete. After this everyone headed home.

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