When we lay for the last time to rest the whole event is filled and felt with many emotions and for the one being sent away only silence prevails. Yet so much more happens in these spaces that are sometimes filled with much solemn, sullenness, unspoken resistance and weaknesses. The gloom that fills the home, neighborhood where the deceased lived is one of the many places of performance and purging. Marches of anger are followed by glamorous presence, one might mistake for a celebrity do. Red dust flies as groups of people from all walks of life make their appearance for the dead, and then it starts all over again.
Many years ago when I was growing up as I still am, I knew of people a few at the time who had gone missing and the neighborhood would look at every crack to find the missing person. Police were most helpful and people did not wait for an announcement on the radio or in the media to go help with the find. It was at will and neighborhoods were so much better and the joy when the lost was found- was just immeasurable.
Today, queercide as coined by Muholi, in South Africa make for one fear for the worst. It is rare that women escape death, and no longer is it that we help each other to find the missing person. The cries for help by the young women killed on a monthly basis. What is heartbreaking I the anticipation of a body being found and it being that of the missing woman. In fact, worst of all is that the perpetrator is a neighbor or from the hood. Known as a friend, a member of the hood, and a brother or son to many. Unfortunately this has become a common sight and with the event so sullen, comes much of the glamour.
What I have come to witness is a dynamics of such events- and celebrations of a life lived, sojourn and then lost. Once the death is publicized there is not a moment that goes without steps taken step by step to air out the anger, plan for the funeral, another march in the community and the last word of prayer. This can be seen unfolding on platforms such as Facebook, and through emails and media briefs. People gather quickly, the few known to the deceased and the masses of people who come from all walks of life. A pitched tent usually is the marked point of the fallen one. The presence of people at funerals is larger than life for a brief moment. Days before- a few people can be seen coming to pay their respects and consoling the family; mother, father (if he is there), sisters, brother, children of the deceased who on many occasions have no idea what has transpired. People come in and out of the home and the family sits quietly in a corner covered in blankets and dark clothing-in mourning. Muholi’s Mo(u)rning room at the Stevenson gallery depicts a clear picture of somber, helplessness and need to turn back the time for a life lost so young.
What follows this quiet time to mourn is the body viewing and rituals and solemn activities-that mirror activist performances in many funerals. Masses of people easily mistaken for a fashion show, seating next to stranger and friends-the chair under the tent fill up fast. The rest of the masses dressed to the T-gather outside the tent and on a sunny day, umbrellas will bring brightness to the already glamourized presence by masses of mourners. One after the other speakers relate of the life of an activist (which has become a relative term) fallen in her tracks. As the masses of people known to the deceased listen, nod their heads in agreements and disapproving of the killing, anger seethes at every mention of the deceased. The masses listen attentively, silence is all but for the preachers, priestesses, reverends who will give a life’s ceremony. Sermons on the word of God bring a sense of confusion to my mind and I will relate this momentarily. Screaming to a screeching sound prayers and the word what can be heard follows, “…of how God loved the world…, …emphasis of us all being made in God’s image, that we are all the same…, …we are all God’s children…, … and it is the heavens that have chosen for this angel to come home,” The silence is broken with melodious roars of singing. Songs are heard and the melodies are o well coordinated and just bring our heart to pieces- what a performance.
With much of the singing as the body is taken to its final laying place, a hearse leading and in tour I the entourage that gives a lasting performance. The final sending is well prepared and coordinated, it leaves one stunned; the suede shoe, the two —three piece suits, sunglasses galore, hats so elegant one might imagine a derby. The high and low heels, the pants and the skirt, the pleats and the frills, and the whites, black and blocked color effect, all make for a sight of glamour. The funeral procession also has a few cars accompanying the hearse — small cars, which carries close relatives-a deals with burial franchise. Some get buses and in recent times I have seen a muscled up Hammer (American oversized military replica vehicle) that is out of this world.
Red dust flies in the air, a tent pitched at the burial site and ushers showing the way help along- as most days- the graveyard is ever busy. Burial time is limited to just an hour to allow for the next grave shift to go on. Cries, screams, hugs and emotions fill the red skies. A final goodbye and in time some forget to step delicately on the ground to keep the suede clean and in the original condition. Some fall to the ground in shock, realism and fear that a life is finally gone.
The burial party takes the tent down and the chairs. The speaker makes the last prayer, dust to dust as people throw soil into the ground to reunite the body from its beginnings. That is the end and the curtain closes. Masses disperse, friends and family return, lunch is had at the house and the many younger people take their next journey and before that they get together for after-tears.
All in this in mind, what rings in my mind is how this is a cycle with little benefit- hear me! I am glad that there are people who care for lesbians and women who are killed and I am also grateful that they get a dignified send off. Who is there and why- it does not matter right now- in the future I will address this. A funeral of a fellow human being can only be filled with people who come to show support, share in the grieving and give strength to the families. What I want to understand is the elaborate and seemingly extravagant event that just ends and begins when another lesbian is killed.
The preachers whom I have seen most of them men- crying to God as they speak of the evil that has taken place and the whole bible scripture quoting-I wonder what happens after they depart and go back to their homes and wait for the next invite to bless the dead. I also wonder what they preach in their churches- how and if when they tell their congregation that hating, judging and killing are not a way of the church and that they need to work with us to stop homophobia and understand non-heterosexual. After all we are all made in God’s image right! So how do we stand for people who kill God’s image- found in many diverse sexualities.
What happened to the children and the family who has lost a child, sister, daughter, auntie, mother and lover? I man ye to understand how we make sure that the families not only see our presence in our glamour but with critical conscience to the livelihood for those left behind. Invitation to witness or talk to people about a death in the family through hate crimes- I can only imagine-it is very raw, hard and difficult. So bringing a mother, sister, partner to speak to a crowd about healing or evokes emotions- some feel that they can heal better and of those who don’t- with grandchildren asking for their mother- what do we do?
Away from the gayness as in happiness of our lives can we also take stock of how we present ourselves- to each other dead or alive. Do we just come for the gays of our lives to mourn and what follows is divorced from us? I am sad to hear that “was“ can go to another funeral and be counted. At the same time as long as we are safe how can we have another graduation, wedding or baby blessing party?
Funerals are no longer as gloom as I can remember- we can celebrate lives and then again if it is true of heavens to cut short (which I do not believe) lives of young lesbian women in South Africa- then at least make sure you feed, clothe, care, reassure and comfort them through these hard and undeservingly hurtful emotions.
About the author
Glenda is a Researcher/Writer/Scholar whose focus is on Gender and Sexuality in Africa.