On Friday Mr. Gneom stood before the morning Assembly explaining funeral logistics to the students. The kids listened intently nodding “Eeh, Rra.” (Yes, Sir) to requests that they sing hymns, wear their uniforms and be respectful at all times.
Now, I know you are all very sad. Mr. Gneom said in conclusion. But I want to remind you that this service is not a time to cry and upset the family.
We expect you to be composed and polite. Students who become very emotional and weep will not be helping the family. Is that understood?
At morning assembly students stand in a square of long straight lines and teachers arrange themselves along the edges to supervise. I turn to Ms. Gnsid and ask her why the children are not permitted to cry.
We just don’t want them distracting people with their emotions.
Do most Motswana try not to cry at funerals?
She looks at me and smiles.
No, Bontle. We cry. You will see.
There are no tears at the memorial service and there are no tears the evening before the funeral when they gather at the family’s house for a final meal together.
On Saturday we arrive, as is customary, at 6:00 in the morning to view the body. People are somber but silent in their grief. There are hymns and prayers to follow and then the coffin is loaded into the hearse and the procession begins. Most people walk the half mile to the cemetery where we form a ring around the coffin. A man is handed a tattered garbage bag from which he extracts several bunches of plastic flowers. These are placed on the coffin while hymns continue. The crowd’s melody aches with sorrow and yet people are resolutely composed throughout the service.
It is nearly 8:00 when the last prayer is said. The sun has risen and is starting to warm us. I stand between two graves piled with rocks and covered in the arches of low green tents. The bushes and weeds at my feet are dry and sharp with thorns that catch and pull at my long skirt.
At 8:10 there is a heavy silence where the minister sighs deeply. He gives a final solemn nod to the men on his sides and they begin to work. The crowd stills as funeral pieces are removed: the stands, the wood, the soft green mats. When they have finished the coffin looks remarkably bare and incredibly small. The men position themselves at the four corners and, in unison, begin to lower the casket into its grave.
They turn the knobs no more than three times before the children start falling. One by one I watch them collapse between the graves. They are sobbing and leaning heavily against one another. Their fathers come to scoop them off the ground and carry them to grassy areas beyond the crowd.
Ms. Elitsab is standing beside me and we lean down to console two children. We rise after a few moments because their grief has begun to break us just as deeply.
Once the coffin has been fully lowered the men form two long lines along the grave’s periphery. There are three shovels resting against the pile of dirt and, one by one, men take turns covering the grave.
This process takes nearly an hour. We sing hymns the entire time and at one point I look behind me where the teenagers are pressed against their parents legs or stroking one another’s hair. Their pain weighs heavily on us and Ms. Elitsab begins to speak with me in a low voice. She is a strong, thick Motswana with deep, velvet eyes. Her voice anchors me and we comfort each other in this soft and subtle gesture of conversing.
When the last of the dirt and stones have been piled onto the mound, the children approach to sprinkle tiny handfuls of sand across the grave. Before leaving the cemetery we form an aisle for the family’s vehicle to pass through and the crowds file behind them out of the gates.
A colleague approaches me as we are exiting.
What did you think of your first Botswana funeral?
Your services are beautiful.
This is how we bury Motswana, he says.
My eyes must look very heavy because he adds,
Don’t worry, Bontle. You’ll get used to it.