This week someone on our street died. It was an old woman who had been sick for "either 4 months or 4 years" one friend told me. It seems like there has been a funeral on our street every few weeks. We'll see cars gathering and more foot traffic than usual and then be told that "so and so" passed away. Honestly, I don't think much of it anymore.
On Wednesday, I had a language lesson. My language helper, Mary, told me that after our lesson she was going to attend the burial for the grandmother on my street (different area than where she lives) who had died. I responded with, "Oh, I'm so sorry, did you know her?" She laughed and said, "No, but when someone dies, you have to stop". She intended on sitting for the burial for a woman who she had never met, on a compound that she had never been to before. She would stay there for hours to support the family- a family she doesn't even know.
When she told me this I continued to pry. I asked her why she would spend her whole day at a funeral for someone she didn't know. She went on to explain that in this culture, it's a way of paying respect and showing the family that you care and are supporting them in their loss. She said you can even just go and sit for 5 minutes, but you should never pass by a house where there is a burial without stopping to give your condolences. She was floored when I told her that in America, it would be unheard of to attend a funeral for someone you didn't know or weren't connected to at all.
You guys, I've walked by many compounds where funerals were going on and haven't stopped. I had no idea I was supposed to. To my Western mind, I thought it would be incredible strange to walk onto someone's property while they were in the middle of a funeral service and just join in. That seems very odd to me- rude even.
However, as soon as she told me this, I knew I needed to attend the burial. Now that I knew it was viewed as rude to not stop by a burial, I was eager to start participating in this part of culture- as a way of showing the people on our street that I care and want to be included in their lives.
So Ellie and I joined Mary and we sat. It was nothing special. We greeted an uncle to the woman who died and then we found an empty chair and we talked with those around us. It seemed like most of the people we were sitting by probably didn't know the woman either. But they were present.
As we were leaving, Mary told me that the uncle was very grateful that I came. She said I made the family very happy. Really? I didn't do anything. I didn't give money for the burial or even go in the room to pay my last respects (I made sure it was okay to go not in since I didn't know the woman, Mary didn't go, so it seemed safe to follow suit ;)). But I was there. And for some reason, that mattered to the family and the whole community.
At first I was really embarrassed about all of the other burials I haven't attended and about the fact that the people on our street probably think I'm rude for walking by events and not stopping to attend. However, then I realized how grateful I am that Mary told me. The worst part about being culturally unaware is... never being made aware! So I'm thankful that now I know. So, if you need me, I'll be funeral hopping from now on ;).