A few weeks ago, my maternal great-grandmother died. She was 105 years old. By the time she passed on, she had more great-grandchildren than she could remember, her sight was gone, she could no longer walk, had started developing terrible bedsores, and could no longer indulge in many of her favourite little pleasures like eating meat and taking walks.
Although relatives from my mother’s side of the family have always bragged about how they and their ancestors before them seem to have found the elixir of long life, my great-gran had been complaining so much about this very same ‘gift’ by the time she died.
Getting to an advanced age certainly wasn’t all a bed of roses. In her final years, my great-grandmother experienced the entire gamut of indignities of old age, including greater susceptibility to illness, loss of independence and having to be shunted across relatives, among other things.
For many years, conversations with my great-gran always led to her talking about how she wished she would just die. She moaned – understandably so – about how unfair it was for her to live for so long and have to bury some of her children who had passed on before her.
Only the devout Catholic in her stopped her from ending what she now strongly felt had become a miserable life.
Nobody wanted my great-gran to die. Of course not. This is who we are as a cultured people. From the Zezuru side of my father’s family, to the Karanga side of my mother’s, death is no desired thing and is often followed by a series of rituals some of which are supposed to smoothen the transition into the afterlife, or seek to establish cause of death. Even in the case of obvious circumstances like old age, people mourn very loudly, questioning why oh why this person had to die.
Mourning is just the done thing, as is wearing black at a funeral.
My great gran was an important pillar, an autochthonous being whose prayers people believed were heard by the almighty always, and whose spirit – as the family’s longest living ancestor – was believed to be vital to the unity and good fortunes of her posterities. However, her death brought her much needed rest, and many were relieved for her.
Sometimes my great-gran’s talks about wishing to die ended in some serious arguments between her and my uncles and aunts. They did not want to hear such talk from her, and often dismissed it as the ramblings of a demented old woman. To an extent, I believe she probably had become demented, and this was an easy explanation, given her age. But I remember that when I would sit with her and look into her cloudy eyes, she would become very lucid as she spoke about her death wish.
My great-gran had also been lucid when she told anyone who cared to listened that when she died, she wished to lie in her old kitchen one more time, and that she wanted people to wear white and celebrate her life at her funeral. When I heard the news of her passing, I frantically looked through my drawers for white clothes and a white headscarf, only to be chided for my ‘silliness’.
Nobody wore white at the ceremony. Nobody celebrated.
I was both surprised and disappointed that nobody cared to respect all of her wishes. “Did you really think that our relatives kumusha would understand such things,” my mother asked me, quite pointedly.
For my great-gran’s funeral wake and burial, we all travelled to Chivhu, the place where her rukuvhute (umbilical cord) lies. Here her wish to lie in her kitchen in one more time was honoured. Her body had to be transported from Bulawayo, where she had been living with one of my grandmothers.
I thought about how sad it was that people chose to honour only certain parts of my great-gran’s wishes, but not others. I wondered aloud to one of my aunts whether this had been my great gran’s wish; to be buried in Chivhu. She gave me a suprised look and told me bluntly that even if my great-gran had wished to be buried anywhere else, they would have still gone ahead and taken her to her place of origin so that she would lay among her people.
This was the done thing, she said.
Speaking of my own death
As my aunt and I sat in front of the fire, in the thick of night whispering our different viewpoints to each other, I raised my own personal concerns about my own death. When I die, I would really want most – if not all – of what I think are my realistic wishes to be respected and observed.
I told my horrified aunt that in my will, I mention that I would like to donate my body, or any salvageable parts of it, to medical science and be cremated thereafter. After all, once I am dead, I will have no use for these organs and might as well do something useful with them, like contributing to anatomical studies.
My aunt, however, did not see things the same way. Instead, she seemed very dismayed at the fact that I not only have a will, but that I also hold what she describes as ‘stupid western notions of a noble exit from life.’
I seemed to add fuel to the fire when I pointed out that instead of mourning at my funeral, I’d rather people celebrate my life too and reflect on the good times (as we should be doing for my great gran for living a full life. A hundred and five years is no joke!).
At this point my aunt was visibly annoyed and called my mother and some uncles to ‘please come and hear the silly things that vana vemazuva ano (children of today) say.’
There was a strong argument about how cremation meant that there would be no permanent place to honour and memorialise my life and death for the benefit of generations to come. I wondered why this was even important. Not only do I not want my family to be worried about the upkeep of the grave, but I also hate the idea of eventually being forgotten in some graveyard. Think of all the abandoned graves and forgotten people in cemeteries.
I also told my family that if I ever had to depend on a machine to live, they should find the courage to pull the plug. And because I wish to be cremated, I do not believe in investing in a funeral policy and therefore, do not have one. Though I would, to the best of my capabilities, gladly set aside funds for a mini life celebration.
Death is still ‘superstitious’
Over the years, I have observed that my people are generally superstitious about discussing death and its attendant needs, like writing a will, setting up a funeral policy and planning one’s own funeral in advance. They seem to think that talking about one’s death – even though this is an inevitable eventuality – can jinx one’s life and is often a portent of one’s imminent death.
Furthermore, the idea of cremation remains a great taboo with many believing that the material body is needed in the afterlife. To me, burial is a waste of much needed space, and I prefer NOT be eaten by maggots and other creepy crawlies while in slow rot. I also have this (somewhat irrational) fear of being incorrectly pronounced dead and accidentally buried alive, only to wake up stuck in a dark box. Now that would be an excruciatingly horrible and slow death! My mother puts this down to watching too many horror movies.
The many reproaches and disapproving remarks I received after sharing my desires initially hurt, but gave me a fresh perspective and a few lessons to take away. These are issues that my family and I will always differ very fundamentally on, and if I want to secure my wishes, it looks like I will probably have to go the legal route. But somehow, I get the sense that even that will be thrown out the window as my living relatives will not honour the wishes of the dead, as long as such wishes do not conform to familiar standards and practices.
For the better of my great-gran’s funeral, I had been very determined to not cry but rather celebrate her life, as she had wished. But as I watched the men lower her coffin into that gaping hole where she would lie next to the decrepit and weather-bitten graves of her sons and daughters, I thought that perhaps she did belong right there, among her people.
I also wondered when – if at all – I would be back here to visit.
I felt a thick lump rise in my chest and tears gushed unreservedly from my eyes. This was the end of a long and full life of a great ancestor.