To remember someone who has gone to heaven- or hell -and left us on this wretched earth to keep pushing on with life, we take a moment of silence. A moment of peace. A moment of remembrance. A moment of reflection. A moment of love. A moment to give the light hearted among us a chance to laugh. I’m being serious. Imagine yourself at the funeral of someone u knew quite well- someone who had a light outlook on life, the kind that laughed at everything and anything. The person offering prayers asks everyone to be silent for a moment. In that moment, as you think of this person something funny they once told you pops into your mind and your first instinct is to laugh. Just before you let out the laughter, you remember you are at a funeral and you are supposed to be sad. But the laughter won’t relent and it keeps pushing to get out of you! Then you think how funny it would be if you were to suddenly laugh out loud during a moment of silence. This pushes the laughter to the point of making your body shake with laughter. Then you think how funny your dead friend would have found such a situation and how she/he would have laughed with you and the laughter threatens to get out of you without your consent! These funny little thoughts keep coming until you are crying with laughter. You don’t bother to wipe the tears away- you are supposed to be crying anyway. Anyone who looks at you would mistake you for a devastated mourner. This makes the laughter inside you so intense you cannot keep standing so you seat your ass down, bow your head and keep laughter-crying (if that exists). The person next to you sees how absolutely tortured you are and puts their arm around you to comfort you, mistaking the shaking for crying. You poor mourner. Ha ha ha. You imagine your friend’s spirit sitting next to you laughing her/his heart out at you because you can’t laugh and a stupid grin appears on your face. Finally the moment of silence is over and you run out to go laugh!

When you are done laughing you realize you will never see your darling friend again. But the huge involuntary smile left on your face by your laughter reminds you of better times with your friend and you cannot help but keep smiling all through the service. Then the moment the coffin is lowered into the ground comes and the emotions come flooding back. You have to shed a tear.

From my observations and my own experiences, I have concluded that the most emotional part of any funeral for the loved ones is the moment the coffin is lowered into the ground. It finally hits you that you will never see that person again. You will never hear their voice again, or joke around or go on wild trips or even fight! You look at that coffin and you cannot help but miss that person already. I’ve never understood this reaction because really all that is in that coffin is a mass of decaying human flesh! It is NOT your friend or family member any more. It may represent them but it is not them. Your friend is in you. Your heart, your mind, your memory. Forever embedded there, never to be erased or forgotten. It reminds me of a statement I read once: friends come and go, but real friends are like stubborn tenants-they occupy your heart and refuse to leave. So why do we cry so much over throwing a mass or rotting flesh and bones into a hole. If we don’t they’ll stink up the place! Besides, if you miss the said person so much you know where they are so you could always dig them up, right? Wrong!

That hole is the eternal resting place of a body that once was. Our memory is the real permanent residence of the dead. I still remember my paternal grand-dad. He is the first person I have memory of burying. I remember that he was the best old person I have ever encountered. I know that is also the case for the cousins who also called him grand-dad. He was fun! He used to tell us to go play when we were supposed to do chores and assign them to the very grown up who had told us to do them. Plus he used to play with us- or rather we used to play with him. He’d sit right in the middle of the compound basking in the sun and watch us play. He was also always smiling. I remember his funeral, and I remember crying, but only because I saw my aunties crying. After his death, going back to the place of my origin became something to avoid and no one wanted to go there any more. My emotions are rather affected by the people around me at such emotional affairs. So if the person near me is sad, I’ll be sad too-except during a moment of silence when I’m laughing my ribs off with a dead person!

The only funerals at which I am totally removed emotionally are funerals of people I did not know or encounter before their trip to the hole in a wooden box. I never know what to say to those I love who knew the person and are totally destroyed by their death. Do I say, “Stop crying. It’s only a body…” or “Let it all out… You’ll never see her/him again! Let it all out…”? So you can imagine my sheer amazement as I observed how a girl comforted a friend who had lost a close cousin. I was seated behind them (the dead girl’s cousin and her friend) at the funeral- the dead person was a friend of a friend who had asked me to accompany them for company. At one point, the dead person’s cousin was attacked by such intense emotion she started crying uncontrollably. Her girlfriend watched her cry for a while then put her hand around her shoulders, offered her a tissue and started looking around for something. When she didn’t find it, with a troubled look she turned back to her friend and asked, “Where’s the food?” The crying girl stopped crying, smiled at her friend, hugged her and the two went off in search of food. I guess the one person who can cheer you up is the one who knows HOW to cheer you up. So if you need cheering up, don’t sit next to me. Please! If no one can cheer you up, try food.

After an African funeral, people fill their bellies and suddenly everything seems okay again. Is that why fate plays the cruel trick of making people wake up late when going for funerals? Everyone at funerals is always complaining how they didn’t take breakfast because they woke up late and as a consequence they carry around this solemn look all through the funeral. But after they eat, everyone’s happy again. So in your will, stipulate that your funeral be held at an ungodly hour so people don’t have time for breakfast. Especially if you know you are not a very liked or likable person. People will cry and be sad until they see the food! Unless you are from my maternal family, that is.

I love this family like I love no other people. They are my favourite people to be around. These guys always see the upside of everything. I’m not saying they never get sad, ‘cause they do, I’m saying they always see the flip side of sad situations. Especially when they loose a loved one. They get together or call each other up to cry together when they get the news that someone they love has passed on. Then they get on with the business of planning the funeral, attending the funeral and having a feast after the funeral. This family has buried two brothers, a sister-in-law and both parents. They buried the first brother – the sixth born – after he was hit by a car on his way to collect his results for the national secondary examination. He didn’t even get to know that he was the best student in the province. This was before my time so I only know what I’m told about him. I hear he was a genius. Then my grandmother was killed by a disease. I am not sure what disease that was but I remember she was diabetic. Then about three years ago, the last born – the second brother – died of AIDS. Then this year we buried my aunt and grandfather within two weeks of each other. My aunt was on her to get her son a place in one of the top secondary schools in the country when the vehicle she was travelling in was involved in a grisly accident and she lost her life. My grand-dad died of old age. We were all quite expecting his death but it still hit us hard. The most emotional funerals of the four I have attended were my grandmother’s and uncle’s. At my aunt’s funeral, we all held back our emotions as we observed her two sons – the older one was really sad and the younger one didn’t seem to comprehend what was going on. Even when the food came out, no one was happy. At grand-dad’s funeral, the preacher was funny and we laughed all the way through. We didn’t even cry much when the coffin was lowered into the hole. At my grandmother’s funeral, though I was still quite young, I remember eating from a huge sufuria together with all my cousins and playing like never before after that. Even the grown ups made a party of it. After my uncle’s funeral, I left early but was later informed that in the very late evening, when the remaining brothers and sisters were alone, one of them found an empty tin and started banging on it in a rhythmic sequence. The rest took this as some sort of signal and they all joined her to sing a joyful song. All the people this family has buried lived a good life and that’s how the family remembers them – as the happy people they were. Rest in peace y’all.

That’s how I want to be remembered. As a happy person. ‘Cause that is what I am. I want people to cry a little over loosing me but then get over it and move on! That’s what I want from the people who take a moment of silence for me in the very, VERY, distant future.

Dedicated to Wanjiru, Nyokabi, Mwangi Kirima and all the Kirima family and friends. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing your Dad, but his passing has you in pieces. And I’m in pieces for you. Moment of silence… … …

© afra njoki