Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:17-19, ESV)
I have (especially at this time of night) no creativity or vividness that adequately describes the scene I participated in this morning at our friend Oupa’s brother’s funeral in Soshanguve. In fact, much of the weariness that I feel this evening stems from a deep sense of the injustice of death. God was devastatingly accurate in describing the reality of death once sin had crept into the world–truly, death is a curse through which we all carry its sting. The pronouncement given to Adam in the Garden has such a sense of finality to it–that mankind is now cursed to death and separation in all aspects–from life with God, to eternity spent in the midst of His creation, to the all-too-brief moments we have with those we love most deeply.
It was only this past weekend that our brother Oupa (my roommate and fellow Apprentice) was traveling back home to visit his sick brother, hoping against the possibility that he was infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Less than 24 hours pass in which he finds out that not only is this true, but his brother has passed away from an AIDS-related illness that hastened his death!
Death and grief have been companions in my community of friends these past few weeks, as my first girlfriend way back in high school, Kelly Shaffer (now Ortiz), just passed away tragically at the tail end of Valentine’s Day weekend from an infection that claimed not only her life, but the life of her unborn daughter. I just sat next to Kelly and her wonderful husband, Greg Ortiz, at our recent 10-year Prospect High School Class of 1998 reunion a few months earlier, and throughly enjoyed my evening due largely to the conversations I had with my old friends. Hearing the news from old high school friends as I am literally around the world was almost too much to bear, and has affected me more than I am aware these past few weeks.
Thus, in seeking to draw near in support of my brother and friend Oupa this past week, we anticipated supporting him this morning during the funeral and burial proceedings out in Soshanguve. We had been prepped that this would likely be a ‘deep culture’ experience for us, meaning that we were entering into a world far different from our Western experiences with death, grief, funerals, and saying goodbye to departed friends as a community. This proved to be vividly accurate as the morning progressed.
We arrived at 7:50am to the rhythmic pounding of drums and the melodic harmony of African choirs from the local AIC church that Oupa’s mother is a part of, joining them several hours into their first of two services. Quickly we were seated as ‘guests of honor’ under a large tent that had been erected in the back patio area of Oupa’s house in Block FF of Soshanguve, joining into an ongoing collective experience of grief expressed through mourning song, thoughtful reflection, and passionate preaching calling Oupa’s community to hope in the coming resurrection of Christ (Oupa himself invoking some of the most impassioned preaching!). A circle of woman dressed in ‘uniforms’ (choir robes) would dance and sway around the casket in prayer, chanting, and ‘call-and-response’ type song in-between each person who shared. It was fascinating–as if they were calling forth and invoking a deep sense of mourning over the loss of Oupa’s brother, as well as the effect it had on the community he had recently departed from. What was most impactful to me was the fact that these dear brothers and sisters knew how to mourn–and were unafraid of tears, wailing, and hopeful song in the midst of tears.
After a few hours of this, we proceeded to a local cemetery in Soshanguve for the burial portion of the service–hundreds of church members, neighbors, family and friends in a long funeral procession of cars, buses, and flatbed trucks. Arriving at the cemetery, it was chaos as we descended upon this corner of the cemetery in which 15-20 simultaneous burials were taking place. People were walking from all directions towards the burial areas, trying to find their parties. In the midst of this were multiple Hearse cars trying (in vain) to move through the throngs of people to deliver the caskets to their designated graves. We just started walking in the same direction as everyone else. A conservative guess would estimate maybe 3,000-5,000 people in this immediate area–it felt in a weird way like we were all walking towards a concert. It certainly was musical enough–almost every burial had its own choir chanting or singing to the rhythm of tambourines and drums, as far as the eye could see. Beautiful, overwhelming, chaotic, moving, grief-filled. A collective sea of mourning, at the ‘peak’ hour of the week for burials throughout Africa. Dayna Cermak, a staff member with us, casually mentioned at one point that she had heard that there are about 150 funerals a weekend in Soshanguve. Simple math would tell you that if our services were ‘common’ with about 300 people at them, this would tell you that about 45,000 people are mourning the death of a loved one EACH weekend in Soshanguve, let alone throughout innumberable communities in Africa.
All of a sudden, the reality of the AIDS pandemic, which so often is just an ominous story on then news, or a collection of ‘too crazy’ facts, became starkly real and personal. Somewhere between 5,000-8,000 deaths take place each day as a result of HIV/AIDS in Africa, depending on which set of statistics you subscribe to. Regardless of this number, as we watched the casket lowered into the ground, the women in Oupa’s family came forward to drop a handful of earth over their son/brother/husband/father. Quickly the men grabbed shovels and began flinging the sod over the casket, almost in a roughly cathartic way intended to heal. At one point, I was handed a shovel and even asked to jump in, which was crazy. Song, prayers, wailing accompanied this frenzied effort. It was as if the entire community needed to move in action at once, as if their collective movement brought forth a deeper sense of mourning and grief.
I was overcome with the reality of death, and couldn’t shake the shedding of tears, nor the thought that “This is not what God intended for His people.” There is nothing normal, right, just, or necessary about death. It comes and steals life from those God has breathed His very breath into. And a day is coming in which death will be no more.
Tonight, I cling to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55: That there has come (and will come again in fullness) a day in which “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
I live in the tension between those worlds tonight.
P.S. My friend Joe Reed has shared his thoughts about today as well.