Anyone living in Malawi cannot help but be struck by the tender poignancy of funerals for the deceased’s families and the obvious significance of these events for the broader community. Funerals are a “big” deal in Malawi. During our first 11 months in Blantyre, we have been privileged to attend seven funerals—four held in tiny remote villages outside of the city and three within the city limits. In each case, we were the only “azungus” in attendance, or just one of a handful of whites. I have no doubt but what we were an oddity, attracting unwanted attention, but the Malawians (including the families of deceased) have, without fail, treated us with great respect as honored guests, even though we had little or no contact with the families. Of those who died, we had only known Juliet Simbeye well.
Of the seven funerals, two of the services were under the direction of Church members. In the other cases, the religious portion of the services were conducted by Catholic priests (Sister Caetano’s deceased husband); Mennonite ministers (Brother Chizola’s mother); leaders of the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Protestant) church (Chris Sitolo’s father and President Kanjala’s father); and ministers from the New Message Apostolic Church (Lucy Tembo’s brother). As one might expect, the various churches handled the services somewhat differently, but we have found that, irrespective of the faith of the deceased, many of the rituals were fairly consistently from one funeral to the next. The services, we suspect, have a combination of religious and atavistic elements, some traditions perhaps having roots that go back hundreds of years well before Christianity had been introduced to Africa.
Many families prefer to bury their deceased, if possible, in their family villages, the ties to the villages remaining amazing strong, even if the family has been away from the villages for years. Sometimes this is not feasible due to costs (transporting the body to far distant villages is very expensive) and the inconvenience it causes when most of the family members no longer live in or near the village. On occasion families incur substantial debt to bury their dead—a practice the Church strongly discourages—as it leaves the families financially encumbered with large debts they have trouble paying off.
The following is a brief description of several of the common characteristics we have seen when attending these funerals:
Everywhere funerals are intended to serve similar social functions--to pay respects to the deceased and to support the remaining family. They no doubt advance other social objectives, even if they are dimly understood by those who are in attendance. They re-affirm the faith of believers in the face of that great uncertainty that is death. And even for those without faith, some of the rituals are intended as acts of quiet defiance—showing man’s will to survive as a collective unit even when one of its members dies, and even in the face of the inevitability of death. Sometimes, the funeral serves to re-establish social cohesion or re-order lines of formal or informal authority, especially when prominent individuals or family heads die, recognizing the passing of power or authority from one generation to the next. So it is not surprising that funerals draw together family members, from far and wide, neighbors, religious and political leaders and prominent members in the community. In this, Malawi funerals are not markedly different than funerals elsewhere in the world.
But what sets Malawi funerals apart is their utter scale, as measured by funeral party size, the length of the period of mourning, the intensity of the emotions expressed, and the scope of the community support shown for the deceased’s family. The number of people attending the seven funerals varied in number, ranging from 350 to 550. Each of these funerals was larger in size than almost any funeral we have attended in the United States. In Malawi, it is very important for those who know the family, whether or not they knew the deceased, to make an appearance at the funeral. Such appearances are expected, and families can easily take offense, if visits are not made. As a consequence, Malawians are constantly going to funerals—funerals for the elderly mother of a friend, for a distant uncle, the father of a Church member—what is important is giving respect to the family. Employers accept that their employees need time off to participate in such events—funeral attendance is something everybody “gets” or understands, and concessions and allowances are always made to allow such support to be given.
But of equal, or greater significance is the time Malawians freely take to gather, wait, and support the family of the deceased. Hours upon hours are devoted to supporting families. It is not just about attending an hour-long funeral service on the day of the burial—certainly a break in one’s busy schedule but hardly a major sacrifice of time. In Malawi, giving family support begins immediately after news of the death has been passed. Within hours of hearing of the death, friends, family and neighbors begin to gather at the family home. Those who gather express their condolences and then evidence their support by staying with the family, quietly supporting them by sitting wherever they can find space. This migrates into all-night vigils, held night after night, until the burial itself takes place. Friends have, of course, other commitments—they can’t drop everything while waiting for the funeral, but it is not usually for husband and wife to alternate visits to maintain a constant presence.
The funeral is usually held no later than two or three days after the death. The day of the funeral service can easily consume at least five to eight hours, and this time commitment is on top of the hours (including hours of all-night vigils) the friends and neighbors may have already spent assembled at the family home. The day of the internment friends, family, neighbors, community leaders start gathering between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning, hours before the service is expected to begin, sitting quietly, usually on the ground, against walls, under the shade of bamboo trees, small shade trees and in the lee of outbuildings, patiently waiting for the service. Men and women are strictly segregated, never sitting together, but grouped in small clusters—the women sitting on their brightly colored chitenges, the men sitting directly on the ground, or in the handful of chairs or sofas that have been brought outside. Most chairs and sofas are informally reserved for special guests.
No one is in a hurry—no watching the clock or worrying about a later appointment—though men frequently fiddle with their phones and other electronic devices. Conversation is quiet and respectful. Once the funeral service finally begins an hour or so after lunch, it lasts an hour or so and follows a fairly predictable pattern. The program is invariably in Chichewa though most of the speakers are usually bilingual—when it comes to matters closest to the heart, Malawians revert to Chichewa to express their feelings.
And after the service, the funeral party—now gown in size to the proverbial sea of humanity—stretches out, in a long line, heading to the local cemetery, which is always within walking distance. In one case, the cemetery was over a half a mile from the village, and easily 200 to 300 feet above the village in elevation, so waves of mourners passed the coffin, from one to another, up the steep, rocky path, winding between the lower village and the upper gravesite. On several occasions, the distances between the family home and the graveyard were close to a mile, the funeral party stretching out in long narrow lines, one or two people wide, threading their way through the maize fields, past humble homes, up and down the narrow ravines and gullies. At the graveyard there is a second program, which does not begin until after the coffin has been placed in the ground, and covered by the crew assembled to help with the burial. This group, usually 10 to 20 strong, works feverishly for 20 to 30 minutes to prepare the gravesite for the final remarks and ceremony. Khasus and shovels are used to cover the coffin and mound the site. Each funeral we have attended stretched between 5 and 7 hours—so it is not an inconsequential commitment to attend. Everyone understands funerals will be day-long events.
As we have watched these amazing events, I have been struck by how they must have resembled communal gatherings, both formal and informal, in the pre-industrial world—when huge crowds would assemble, over sprawling grounds, for events lasting hours, as people gathered to commemorate major events, news of which was largely shared by word of mouth advertising. These social events were precursors to today’s modern-day equivalents—massive religious revivals, sport events, political rallies, and music concerts. What is however different is how long the Malawians wait for the services to occur—it is as though they have nothing else to do or as though the event itself is understood to be a major attraction that warranted queuing up and waiting.
Another defining characteristic of Malawian funerals is that they are preceded by one or several all-night vigils held at the home of the deceased’s family. Immediately following the death, the family sends out word of the passing. With today’s ready access to cell phones, news can spread quickly. Everyone knows, without being told, that the funeral service, and burial, will be held within a couple of days, since the cost of preserving the body for longer periods is prohibitive. Without being specifically invited, friends, family and neighbors quietly gather at the home of the deceased to pay their respects and to give support. Making these visits is considered obligatory and is never regarded as a potential intrusion upon the family’s privacy or a desire to mourn only with the closest of relatives and friends. The norm is well understood—you are required to visit, even if they did not have friendly relations with the deceased of the family-- if you do not do so, the deceased’s family will take offense and will not attend your funeral or that of your family members. If offered food, you are also expected to eat as it is considered rude to refuse such courtesies. Azungus are generally exempt from these rules—because everyone knows they “don’t know better.”
Those who gather do not head home when it gets late or after sharing a few words of comfort, but instead find someplace within the family home, or more likely a narrow spot on the grounds, wherever they can find some space, spending the entire night in quiet support of the family. Virtually all of the furniture is removed for the home to allow more sitting within the family home. The women closest to the family spend most of the night singing to express their grief and give comfort. These all-night vigils are repeated night after night until the day of the burial. As a consequence, family members, as well as close friends, get little sleep over several days, other than a few hours each night when quiet finally settles over the home. Many neighbors may find themselves equally deprived of sleep, though often, with this in mind, they share with one another the responsibility of keeping a constant presence at the family’s home, shuttling back and forth to pace themselves for what they know will be a long ordeal.
We have witnessed a number of outbursts of inconsolable sorrow at Malawi funerals, something we have found quite surprising given the usual stoicism with which the Malawians seem to face many of their life trials. Malawians rarely, in our experience, express much emotion. They don’t talk much about their feelings, show emotions or share much about their families or personal lives. Questions about their lives are often answered narrowly—rarely do they volunteer information about themselves and their families. Though this lack of emotion and privacy are perhaps just the face they put on when dealing with Westerners. In private, they are surely more forthcoming and open with their feelings with close friends and family.
Whatever their natural instincts may be, funerals are occasions where raw emotions are often expressed, frequently in dramatic ways. The first time we witnessed this was at Esther’s funeral in Mpemba. Esther’s sister, who was then living in China, arrived late, after Esther had been buried in the village cemetery and most of the gravesite program had been completed. Her appearance was sudden, dramatic, and over the top. She threw herself upon the grave, sobbing inconsolably. Several women, close family members, sought to comfort her, wrapping her in their arms, caressing her tenderly, whispering. She fought their restrain, breaking free several times, flinging herself back upon the dirt, and it was only after an extended period that she calmed down enough to allow the gravesite program to be brought to an end.
Subsequently, we have learned that such outbursts of emotion are not uncommon, but have been characteristic of most of the funerals we have attended. Given the extreme nature of the histrionics, I thought for a while that the families might have hired women mourners to cry, scream and wail for the deceased, to give visible expression to the private grief felt by the family, but we have been told this is not the case. Two events seem most apt to trigger these episodes: the actual burial of the body—symbolic of the “end” of life and final separation of the deceased from the living; and the periods during which women gather around the coffin in the family home, singing religious and traditional songs, and chanting. But these are not the only occasions when such grief may spill over the boundaries of more normal expressions of sorrow. The other day, when we visited with Lucy, a day before the funeral itself, several of Lucy’s sisters were beside themselves, lying face down in the dirt, wailing uncontrollably, or screaming as they staggered, like one drunk, through the small courtyard in front and alongside of the family house. Perhaps these displays of ragged feelings are in part due to the sleep deprivation the family members experience. One can hardly be expected to reign in one’s emotions after going one or several nights with just an hour or so of sleep. But whatever the reason, it is painful to watch these episodes of raw emotion, wondering what, if anything, can be done, in the moment, to lessen the agony of those who are in such obvious pain.
Such outbursts frequently prove to be contagious—as one episode triggers another, each woman seemingly egging on another, until something or someone mercifully is able to break the downward cycle of emotional collapse. While men may no doubt have as tender a feelings as women, they are never the ones out of control. These emotional outbursts are sex based—it is although the women have been assigned the role of expressing and giving vent to the emotional anguish that all may feel. In this way, they are representatives of the broader community. Men are expected to keep their emotions in check.
No doubt similar expressions of grief, equally impassioned and wild, may occur during funerals or periods of grieving in the United States. But I think they may be less common. In any event, I am certain they are far less common t Mormon funerals. One may ask oneself why this might be the case. Perhaps the answer is in part based upon cultural and social expectations. When families grieve, they should do so in private, and are expected to keep in check their emotions during the public ceremonies recognizing and celebrating the life of the deceased-- such as funerals and internments. Of course, one expects the family of the deceased to feel sorrow and pain, but the expression of those feelings are expected to keep within subtle boundaries. It is not considered “proper” to lose control. Most, I think, would point however to a different, more profound, reason for the more restrained behavior of Church members who grieving for their lost ones. The message of the restored gospel is one of hope, grounded in the belief that Christ was the first fruit of the resurrection, and that all will, in the Lord’s due time, come forth from the grave. The righteous can look forward to coming forth in the resurrection of righteous and all have the hope of seeing and being reunited with loved ones in the life to come.
This hope is the antidote to the inconsolable grief one might otherwise feel upon the death of a loved one. Those who have a testimony of the restored gospel, while grief-struck upon the loss of a loved one, are still able to look beyond the moment of personal loss, and take comfort in the hope of a brighter and more glorious future. This hope does not eliminate the pain, but softens the anguish. It gives a long-view perspective not otherwise possible. Ultimately this perspective is grounded in the faith of those who remain. The greater the faith, the greater the capacity to hope for the future. I thought of this when attending the gravesite service for Brother Chizola’s elderly mother. After a period of mourning at the family home, the coffin was carried, by waves of mourners, up an extremely steep, windy, mountain path to the village cemetery. While the undertaker’s helpers were covering the coffin with dirt, a small choir of Mennonite members encircled the grave, singing one church hymn after another. The singing was in Chichewa. And while I did not understand the words, I felt the spirit of hope that small choir was trying to share with those in the funeral party. It was the hope of a glorious future for those who die in Christ and who have lived a righteous life. Part way through burial, one or two women, whom I could not see, were overcome with raw emotions--screaming, wailing, conveying a spirit of fear, anguish, and terror, primitive and elemental in character. Nothing could have been more at odds with the music of the small choir and the spirit of peace they intended to convey. But those who mourned seemed to be beyond their reach. For a moment, it was as though that small group of the faithful Christians (though not Church members) were trying to keep at bay the hopelessness to which mankind would otherwise succumb were it not for the good news of Christ’s resurrection and the hope of the atonement’s cleansing power. It is likely true that were it not for the gospel’s message, all of us would be as full of terror, as inconsolable, as raw, as devastated, as lost, as the mourners who were outside the circle of the believers and who took no comfort in their message.
Men and women do not sit together or mingle during funerals or during the home gatherings that precede them. This is not surprising because a similar segregation of the sexes prevails during church services. While visiting the family home prior to or during the funeral, men congregate in clusters, sitting on the ground wherever they can find space, often in the shade of small trees or up against the walls of the outbuildings and other homes. They visit quietly amongst one another and wait patiently, supporting by their presence the bereft family. The pattern for the women is not much different. The clusters of women spread out over the space around the family home—next to the family home, across the street, up against neighboring homes and outbuildings, in small copses of trees. In addition, a group of women—consisting of family, close friends, and church members—gather around the coffin, which is placed in the center of the main room in the family home. The women in the room change from time to time, as some leave for food or breaks and others come in to pay their respects to the family. The family removes all of the larger furniture—chairs, sofas, beds, tables—from the home before the coffin is delivered by the undertaker—to free up space within the home to accommodate the largest possible group of mourners. The women converse quietly and often sing, sometimes hour upon hour, during the day-time and deep into the evening. Occasionally, the women, as a group, leave for food, and then they are replaced by a similar group of men who resume the constant vigil over the coffin. Rarely however do the men and women mingle, other than casually. This segregation is however not strictly practiced during funeral services conducted by Church members. Then men and women come together as an informal combined choir. The guiding principle seems to be quite simple—the bereft family should not be left alone, between the time of death and the burial, but should be constantly encircled, supported and embraced by as many friends, family and neighbors as possible. Strength is drawn from being together at this time of mourning. It is the strength of the community in the face of death.
Men conduct the services, whether at the home or at the cemetery. It is rare to have a woman speak, but it did happen at the funeral of Sister Caetano’s husband. The family of the deceased looks to others to do the funeral arrangements, conducting the meeting, giving remarks, expressing gratitude. The funeral is for the benefit of the family, so, as in the United States, others are expected to step up and handle the mechanics, removing that burden from the family so that they can focus on greeting others and dealing with their own feelings of loss.
Apart from the public gathering at the family home (including the all-night vigils), the funeral itself consists of two programs: one held at the family home (shortly before leaving for the cemetery), and the second conducted in the cemetery. Once each of these programs commences, it is not inordinately long—usually lasting little more than an hour. What takes the time is getting ready to start and the waiting between programs. Malawians are extraordinarily patient, sitting hours on the ground or in battered chairs or old sofas, in quiet conversation or devoted to personal reflection, waiting for things to get going. Waiting is certainly not thought of as wasted time, but instead is an important way of showing respect and providing support. During the family home service, women first, and then men, are invited to file through the coffin-bearing room to pay final respects to the deceased, not unlike a public viewing of the coffin before a funeral service in the United States. At Jacob Tembo’s funeral, there was a line of over 50 women, dressed in their colorful chitenge, lined up to pass by the coffin, and off to their side, in the middle of the road, six priests from the New Apostolic Church, wearing frayed and ragged white and red robes and slashes, preparing to deliver their remarks and prayers, once the final viewing of the deceased was completed. The colors, pageantry, and diversity of the scene were amazing—I will, however, never be able to capture those or similar images in photographs. Carole and I try very hard to be respectful of the privacy and sensitivity of those with whom we visit. We are grateful for their willingness to allow us to be in their presence and don’t want to be a distraction or abuse in any way their trust.
The service is then conducted by a representative from the undertaker, and a church leader. Customarily, several speakers are invited to make short presentations. An honored representative of the family, often a maternal or paternal uncle, speaks on behalf of the family, giving a short eulogy of the deceased. The local chief or village head man, or a representative, speaks for the community. One of his responsibilities is to acknowledge the donations of friends and neighbors, made to help the family defray funeral expenses—100 kwacha from one family, 1,000 kwacha from another, 350 kwachas from yet another. These donations are made directly to the chief and not to the family, and the chief is responsible for seeing to their proper application These public acknowledgements are considered important, and each funeral we have attended have included such recitals. Also the local political parties may have representatives present who convey their condolences. The services are in Chichewa, so neither Carole nor I have ever known whether the remarks were either comforting or included much in the way of a traditional eulogy for the deceased.
With the exception of Esther’s funeral, all of the funerals were conducted at the family home, within walking distance of the cemetery. Despite the length of the service, the crowd does not tend to thin out during the long day. Though people certainly come and go during the day, for the most part people seem to stay throughout the long services, showing their respect by patiently waiting for the services to conclude. So the crowd of mourners going to the cemetery is packed—with a long line of mourners filing behind the coffin as it makes its way to the cemetery. Usually, the church members of the group conducting the service sing as the coffin is carried to the cemetery.
Malawians are jealous to preserve the dignity of their funeral processions. If the family can afford it, a flatbed truck may be hired to convey some of the mourners to the cemetery. Usually, at city funerals, there are several cars in the funeral procession, one carrying the coffin, but the vast majority of the mourners walk from the home to the cemetery. Indeed, for most village funerals, the only way to get to the cemetery is by foot. Where there is a car procession, a handful of young men are dispatched, as a vanguard in front of the crowd, to clear the way for the mourners; they do this by waving broken branches before them to signal to the traffic that a funeral process is coming. Everyone they encounter on the way--from cars, trucks to foot passengers—is expected to pull off the road to allow the process to pass by without disruption. Even minibus drivers—notorious for their disrespect of others’ rights on the road (indeed, they are as bad as cab drivers in New York City)—have the good sense and decency to pull over the road, waiting for the procession to pass completely by. One of the few times we have seen Malawians truly upset was when a few people failed to show the proper level of respect for a passing funeral party.
Once the crowd reaches the cemetery, the customary segregation of men and women occurs. Men on one side and women on the other; but sometimes the pattern is more piebald. It is the Malawi practice to drop the coffin into the grave, fill the hole and then cover it with a large mound of dirt before starting the gravesite service. This backbreaking process is done by hand, using traditional khasus and short shovels, and handled by floating crews of men. Often men in the crowd volunteer their services, as instruments pass from hand to hand, while the grave is filled and prepared for the final service. On one occasion, cement was mixed at the site, and poured into the grave, over the coffin. Later we were told this precaution had been taken to deter would-be grave robbers from desecrating the site by digging up the coffin for resale. Again the funeral party is expected to wait quietly, often sitting in the hot sun; usually it takes close to half an hour to prepare the site for the service. Village cemeteries are typically found in small copses of narrow trees, providing a little shade, but city cemeteries are usually in open fields—perhaps because most of Blantyre has long since been logged. Services are again under the direction of both the undertaker and the church in charge of the program. Several talks are given; a second discussion of donations—this time a short explanation as to how the contributions have been applied. One of the final rituals is to invite family members and others to come forth to place wreathes (usually paper wreathes) on the grave. Church groups frequently sing, while the funeral crowd spreads out, again in clusters, segregated by sex, sitting and waiting for the final benediction.
 The first funeral we attended, after being in Malawi for several months, was for Esther, a young Church member from Lilongwe in her early twenties, who died in Blantyre after a long illness. Though few in the Blantyre District knew Esther, the Church was asked to conduct the funeral. The service began with a fairly typical Mormon funeral program, which was completed within last than an hour. Brother Banda of the Zingwangwa Branch conducted the meeting, there was a short eulogy, and the concluding speaker talked about the hope we have through the plan of salvation. A funeral procession then took the body and over 50 people to the family’s village of Mpemba, 20 miles south of Blantyre off the Chikwawa road for a more traditional African service and burial. The service at the family home and burial took the better part of five hours, most of the time in pouring rain. Several months later we attended the internment of Chris Sitolo’s father, who was buried in a large municipal cemetery adjacent to the CCAP main church and headquarters in Blantyre. Next Carole and I went out to President Kanjala’s home village in the Mulanje District for the funeral and burial of his father. We had taken his father to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital just before his death; he died within an hour of our dropping him off at the hospital. But within the last two weeks (from the mid of September through the first week of October), we have attended four more funerals: the first for Brother Chizola’s 92-year old mother in a small village in the Zomba District, an hour out of Blantyre; followed two days later by the funeral for Sister Caetano’s husband, who was buried not far away from his family’s compound in the Thyolo District, close to the Thyolo Boma. A week later there were two more funerals: Juliet Simbeye, a daughter of Sister Mwale, died after a long illness; and two days later, Jacob Tembo, an older brother of Lucy Tembo of the Blantyre 2nd Branch, passed away. Sister Juliet’s funeral was at the home of her parents, the Mwales, in Chimwankhunda, and Jacob’s at the home of his parents in Chilobwe; both were buried within feet of one another in the Chilobwe cemetery.
 Sister Caetano’s husband came from a prominent family. Somewhat surprisingly, there were eleven priests present for his funeral service.
 In a light hearted way, I have suggested to several of our Malawian members that it would be best to die in Malawi. I have no doubt but what the number of people attending my funeral in Malawi would be two to three times the size of the funeral party in the United States.
 There is certainly one exception to this rule. Church members are willing to bear their testimonies and often speak from the heart, expressing tender feelings about their conversion and experience in the Church.
 The Church discourages this practice of segregation, but during most Sacrament Meeting and other common Church services, it is still common for men and women not to sit together as couples or as families. Men are on one side of the room, women on the other. Young children move between the groups, sometimes with their mothers, sometimes their fathers. The segregation however is not absolute—occasionally couples do stay together. I would be surprised if the segregation does not break up in the next five to ten years, as the Church members can more mature and incorporate more fully Church culture.