Second Coffin

I remember carrying my grandfather's coffin; the second coffin I had carried. My younger cousins, much bigger than me, were crying. My brother and I were not. My two uncles in front were not. It was early January in Ayrshire; raining. As we paced, unsure through the blackened rows, I thought of the first coffin I had carried. It was in late July, through a field in Malawi; hot at dusk. 

 

The service had begun hours before in a simple, country church, full of singers, and the untended gardens outside were crowded with shabby men and women, there for respect. We all sat listening to the cries in Chichewa from inside the chapel and the joyful, yearning African choir. Bees buzzed in the little flowers. And the priest came out and addressed the crowd on the grass, many of whom were chatting quietly. Myself and my white companions tried to fit into the thin shade of the small trees. The priest spoke with passion. Then, the coffin came out with strong, thin men, followed by weeping women and crawling children. They swayed to the rhythm of their painful wails. The widow and her orphans walked behind the wave of women, upright, silent. Were the mourning cries part of the ceremony? A respectful act performed by the women who knew him? 

 

The singing began again. Death-affirming; life-giving. 

 

They began to march away from the rural church to which many had walked the miles all morning, and some had cycled, and fewer had been driven like us. All wore rags. You had to dress-down for a Malawian funeral. It was a sign of respect. 

 

We all got up, our legs bloodless from prolonged crossing, and followed the procession. We were walking through African plains of high grass. Yellow at our feet, green in the distance. African blue above low hills. Bright white, long shadows. The country where the dead man was born. There was a village somewhere, but we never saw it. 

 

None of us knew the man. We knew some of his friends, or colleagues. He had worked for a community charity. By the numbers, he was well-liked, well-loved, or at least, well-respected. He was thirty-five; five kids. No word on cause: perhaps AIDS. 

 

And then as we walked, the coffin came near. It was being passed along from man to man as though on a treaded track. It was a long walk, and each could bear the load for a time, then pass it on, and run again to the front. And it came to me, and my friend, Ben, and we did our part carrying the weight and pushing it forward. We followed the Malawian men to the front of the queue and did our part a few times until we reached the gravesite. 

 

The gravesite was a raised clearing; wooden crosses in the growing bushes at the circumference; a mound of dirt in the middle. The coffin was placed in the centre and covered with flowers and the priest again spoke at length and others too made speeches. One speech was made in English and spoke about the man's political work. We all put flowers on the flowers that were on the coffin. Ben was asked to say something and he did well. The sun was setting quickly and the plains stretched out across the wide plateaus of night. There was a light wind and we walked away with most of the others before the coffin was laid in the earth and covered in dirt. As we hurried to reach the truck before dark, down the path through the wild grass that had been trampled by the procession, I felt the memory of the weight of the coffin on my shoulders. I thought how this was my first funeral and how I had not known the man who was dead.