My friend died a couple of months ago. Her name was Otélia.
To be honest, it’s not something I had even thought all that much about since it happened in October. It wasn’t until the passing of several other important people in my life between then and now that has caused some measure of pause, some moments of reflection. It’s strange to think of the things that become so routine here— the wails that break the evening still, the midnight beating of drums, the guttural yelps of Nyau echoing through the dark. Recognizing the resonate sound as a signal of death, the passing of someone important, and continuing about nighttime routines knowing that all will be revealed in the morning light. The floods of women filtering to and from the hospital to escort a body, the yards full of silently sobbing mourners, the processions of open-back trucks full of women clapping and singing. Realizing as the funeral motorcade passes that the neighborhood’s population has ticked down by one, then continuing on about the day’s business.
That’s what happens when death becomes a part of life.
Otélia’s passing came and went like many others. That’s not to say her life went unvalued, her death unnoticed…it’s just to say that death, well, happens. It’s part of the process. There’s very little fear, no stigma or taboo, no resentment toward the limits of time; when Otélia died, her friends and family mourned that she was no longer with us, but celebrated the life she lived.
The funeral was beautiful. Per custom, Otélia died and was buried within three days. The first of the three were spent in open mourning: neighbors and friends gathering in her yard with family seated inside the house, crying and wailing into each other’s arms, keeping an overnight vigil both in and outdoors. On the second day, the body was retrieved from the hospital.
On the third day, Otélia was taken to the church for a Catholic funeral. Before leaving for the cemetery, all attendees passed by the open casket to say their final goodbyes, many leaning over and dripping final tears onto her resting face. It was a moment I can’t explain, seeing her like that. It was so much more personal than many of the other deaths I’ve experienced. Her face was as if she was sleeping, the tears like delicate beads of perspiration in the afternoon heat.
As she was buried, family and friends took turns scattering handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, then dropping full shovel loads. By the time dirt was piled high, flowers and plants were distributed among the crowd. One by one we took our turns planting them upon the mound until the fresh, raw earth was heavy and laden with new life. Her daughters honored her memory by lighting candles at all four corners of the plot, placing a flowered wreath at her head, generously watering the fresh green growth. There was somehow a sense of new beginnings as we walked away from that place.
Since Otélia’s passing, I’ve lost many other people in my life—both literally and figuratively. A dear friend, a great uncle, a pillar of strength for many years, a confidant. Many of them left my life as quickly and unexpectedly as they entered it, leaving me reeling in search of meaning. But life isn’t always fair. Sometimes the best people are taken from us too soon, casting us in the shadows of their absence until we can learn to live in the light they brought to us.