Funer(e)al

It had been a cold, grey, wet week. Not much fun for a young one accustomed to the pleasures of wide open spaces in the sun filled with surprises. Endless hours of rain watching and fantasising soon became boring, especially as I did not yet have sisters and cousins old enough to share these times with. When the phone call came that night to say that one of our family’s old friends had passed away, something in the air suggested adventure. Within a few minutes of my dad receiving the news, my uncle (his only brother) arrived at our home. There was no question that they would have to attend the funeral. This was an old friend of their father’s with whom the family had shared a business relationship. The ‘old man’ had also been a presence in my dad and uncle’s lives, someone with whom they had shared many experiences. But attending the funeral was not a simple exercise – it would be a whole day’s affair. The ‘old man’ had died in Izingolweni, a rural area some way outside of Port Shepstone.

Not the kind of child to be left out of anything, and seeing my escape from the boredom of wet weather, I insisted that I be allowed to go with. I had seen the glint in the eyes of my dad and uncle when they spoke about the trip. I had seen it very seldom before, and knew that this was probably something i would not want to miss. In spite of my mum’s protestations, I nagged and sulked enough to be made part of the whole deal. For my dad, it became ‘a way for the child to learn’. And the next morning, bundled up ‘like an eskimo’, I settled into the backseat of my dad’s BMW, content to listen to the easy exchanges that would flow between the brothers. With niggling business related issues out of the way, the talk soon turned to boyish matters – stories of their childhood, and car escapades. In the few hours on the way to the funeral, I would be schooled in the many ways in which to enjoy your car on a wet and muddy road. My uncle behind the wheel, and the weather presenting quite a few challenges for driving, much of the talk focused on the best ways to negotiate curves in the mist at high speed. There were no pranks played yet, though lots of talk of skids and 360 degree turns. For now, I would have to rely on my imagination and the colour of their words, their daredevil speak tempered in action by the need to get to the funeral unfrazzled and the severity of the mist and rain. From my backseat perch, the hills and valleys on the way to Izingolweni became alive with promise and a strangely comfortable fear – a fear that comes with needing to discover the unknown, to explore in uncertainty, with the comfort of knowing you’re not alone.

As signs of life began emerging through the mist, my dad warned me to respect things that I saw that might be different to what I was used to. And not to ask too many questions. As I got out of the car and looked down on the kraal and huts with their fires burning, the wail of women’s voices in the background, I quietly slipped my hand into my uncle’s. There were warm hugs for my dad and uncle from the sons of the late friend, who had come up the hill to meet us, and slightly amused handshakes for me – the ‘young Naidoo’, the ‘young dokotela’. As we walked down the hill, the brothers shared their grief and concerns about their father’s death with us. This was not just some duty call that my uncle and dad were paying; these were people they were genuinely close to. I was secretly glad – we were not just coming to allow the family to say that the doctor of the town had come to pay his respects.

Shivering in spite of my ‘eskimo’ skin, I was most grateful for the roaring fire that we were immediately taken to. Its warmth had drawn all the men of the place. I wondered whether the wailing women ‘s place of gathering was just as warm. My dad and uncle introduced and welcomed, it was my turn – ‘son of the doctor’ came the words in zulu. I immediately turned to my dad, waiting for his correction. Instead, he just raised his eyebrows at me and smiled. I knew to be quiet and play along. As soon as the conversation started up, he would lean over and whisper to me – ‘Do you want to go and sit with the ladies? No, so just let them think you’re a boy. Ok?’ off course it was ok with me. I had no intention of being separated from my dad and uncle. Over the next few hours I listened to the stories of old men who had shared the life of the late friend, stories in which my uncle and dad featured as young boys, stories that had us all laughing as we celebrated the life of the ‘old man’. There wasn’t the usual air of sadness and solemnity that my young mind had come to associate with funerals. Instead, the community elder’s death had occasioned the roasting of freshly slaughtered meat on an open fire and the sharing of umqombothi especially brewed by the women of the place. Soon men would begin to dance and the stories would become more animated, with two to three people relating the same story. I watched in awe as my dad and uncle joined the ceremony of drinking, feasting, and story-telling that the men made amongst themselves that day in the middle of nowhere. Watching them be happy, I was happy too.

The drive home was a lot more edgy. Warmed by umqombothi and fired up by the memories of past adventures, my dad and uncle took turns behind the wheel, popping what I now know to be wheelies and playing dare with the curves in the mist. My fear again tempered by the comfort of their playful, carefree approach to the drive, I quickly settled into my own flurry of questions that I had been storing up all day – why were the men and women separated? Why did they slaughter animals? Why was it only the men who drank the beer when the women made it? Where were the women? Where was the body of the dead man? Off course, each answer set off a whole new lot of questions. As the bends became fewer and the lights of Margate bade farewell for us to the quiet and eerie splendour of the hills, I’d become much quieter, preparing all my stories to tell my mum. As we approached Port Shepstone, the mood in the car slowly became more serious, less easy. It was as if with each metre driven, my dad and uncle were leaving behind another bit of their freedom, their carelessness, their desire to live uncertainly, and picking up another bit of responsibility, duty, and obligation. ‘Don’t tell mummy about our driving, ok?’ my dad ventured, almost as if he were reading my thoughts. I nodded – the funeral was enough meat for my stories. My silence about the skids was little to pay for the secrets I’d been let into that day. Secrets I would cherish forever. Secret spaces I would desire forever.

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2 Comments

  1. You are a great raconteur and a gifted writer.

    My dad died 2 years ago and instead of a funeral, we decided to have a celebration of his life. We had a braai and people were encouraged to speak about their memories of him. Many people were stilted and I suspect they found it all a bit strange (Die vreemde Engelse!). Others said it was a wonderful thing to do and would want the same when their time came. Some of the local farmers asked why we couldn’t just bury our dead with a church service like ‘normal’ people!

    All our farm workers attended, as did the staff from the hospital where he had died (4 hours away, but still they came!), and they ‘got it’. They spoke so beautifully about my dad and helped us to achieve the kind of send off we had envisaged. It turned one of the saddest days of my life into one of the greatest.

    To each their own, I guess.

  2. Wow…


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