Pandemic Funerals: Why do they still attend?

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To attend or not to attend? Few things have caused more anxiety and worry among younger Zimbabweans than the issue of their parents and funerals. For many of the older folks, the question does not even exist. When there is a death in the community, the instinct is to attend the funeral. There is a compelling need to be with the bereaved family; to commiserate, help, and share the burden of grief. But there is a raging wave of the pandemic and people are worried that their parents are exposing themselves, and others to the risk of infection. Not even the rules prohibiting funeral gatherings are a barrier. And no one is really enforcing them.

This is a big worry for everyone because funerals are super-spreader events. Stories of contagion, once it strikes within a family, are now too many and they are raising anxiety levels That is why most people are urging their relatives to stop going to funerals. But many, especially the younger people, are in despair over what they see as the defiant and “stubborn” attitude of their parents. They say the parents are not listening to advice. However, much they try, the parents insist on going to funerals. Many say they have since given up. It is a losing battle, they say.

Why are they not heeding the advice? It is not just a Zimbabwean thing. I see people from other countries, especially on the continent, raising the same concerns about the older generation and funeral gatherings. Are they just being stubborn? Or is it just young people who do not get it? Let us explore some of the factors.

Hunhu/Ubuntu

Two events are critical in the life of the average Zimbabwean: the day a person is born and the day they die. For many, celebrating birthdays comes much later in life. Weddings are by choice. But birth and death are the two things that happen to everyone. However, between the two, it is death that is treated with greater reverence. People rarely gather when a child is born. But multitudes do when a person dies. That is the culture. The dead are highly respected, and some rituals go with burials. Giving the dead a dignified send-off is a core part of our culture and it is done together publicly not in private. The idea of a private funeral is a cultural import.

Hunhu/Ubuntu is based on the notion that “I am because you are” – one’s humanity is inextricably intertwined with and dependent on the recognition of another’s humanity. The dead are helpless. The best the living can do is to lay them to rest with dignity. In this culture, it is good to mourn together; to comfort each other, and to bury the dead together. Pandemic or no pandemic, that is the way to which they are habituated. For the old folk, avoiding a funeral is a grievous breach of cultural norms that are deeply woven into the fabric of society.

Everyone is going

Even if you were able to persuade them that hunhu/ubuntu can take a back seat sometimes, such as when there is a pandemic, there are other social pressures. “Everyone else is going” is not an uncommon refrain. Imagine you are in a village and there is a funeral in the next village. Everyone in your village goes to the funeral. It is very hard to avoid the funeral in such circumstances. For a start, there is the ever-present fear of being ostracised by the community. The fear is that the community will regard you are anti-social, and this may lead to exclusion in other areas of community life.

You see, back in the village, people depend on each other a lot because of the communal lifestyle. The funeral is just one event that comes and goes. There is a lot more that goes on that requires the community safety net. Folks do not want to have the reputation of the one who does not attend other people’s funerals in the community.

There is a worse charge, especially in the villages: witchcraft. You do not want villagers will start whispering behind your back saying you are the one who is causing deaths in the family. Even pandemic-related deaths are regarded as “mysterious”. All in all, the pressure to conform weighs heavily on the older folk. “Hazviite kuti ndisaende. Zvinonyadzisa,” they are likely to say. (It’s impossible to not go to the funeral. It would be embarrassing).

Who will bury me?

I have already explained how the occasion of death is treated with the utmost respect. The living gather to give the dead a dignified burial because they also expect the same when their turn comes. Who will bury me when I die? Will you bury me alone? This is a common refrain by the older generation when you ask them to stop going to funerals. They expect others to gather for them when their time arrives, but you cannot have this honour if you do not go and bury others during your time. There is a fear that people will abandon you if you avoid other people’s funerals. Attendance is a kind of insurance policy that when they die, others will be there for them too. They go because that is what people do, whatever the risks. Tied to this “Who will bury me?” rationale is reciprocation. If someone who was always present at your family’s funerals dies, one feels a sense of duty to be there for them and their family. There is a feeling that it would be disrespectful not to.

Social event  

Social events are few and far between, especially in rural areas. Funerals are some of the few social occasions where people gather. Whereas in some cultures mourning and funerals are regarded as private affairs (and families often ask for their privacy to be respected) in our culture the funeral cannot be a private affair. It is a deeply public affair. You can send an invitation card to a wedding or birthday party. There are no such cards to an ordinary Zimbabwean funeral. You just pitch up and commiserate with others.

In fact, the funeral is one huge social event in the life of the community. Often, it is the only time when friends and relatives living in far-flung places meet after a long time. This is where stories are told, and gossip is exchanged. There is even an all-night party as boys and girls beat the drums, sing, and dance the night away. After the initial moments of mourning, the funeral turns into one huge party. There are lots of alcoholic beverages and intoxication. Sometimes a cow is slaughtered, and it might be the only time that folks in the village have meat after a long time. The funeral is not people just crying and being sad. It is a social occasion.

Genuine affection

Sometimes there is a compelling desire to attend out of genuine affection for the deceased or their family. These are bonds that go deep because the person was a close relative or a friend. Much depends on how the bereaved family handles the funeral. If they are firm in restricting attendance, this will help. It might be regarded as “unAfrican” to privatize a funeral but it is probably what the circumstances demand.

The pandemic has brought a new dimension to funerals. It is highly infectious, and gatherings are super-spreader events. Therefore, funeral gatherings are hot spots on infection and ought to be avoided. However, the law enforcement authorities are weak which is why the existing rules are not being implemented. There is a need for authorities to take stronger measures to minimize the high risk of infections at funerals.

It would be great if people exercised agency and changed their habits. But, as we have seen, the great challenge is to overcome societal pressures with which the parents feel they must conform. It is not because they are not aware of the risks. Many of them know there are risks, but they also live in conditions where most of the protocols are routinely ignored anyway. For some, the funeral is not any more riskier than a ride on a crowded ZUPCO bus going to and from work each day.

If you are trying to talk to them out of attending funerals, do not talk down to them as if they are toddlers. They do not want to be patronized. Instead, show them that you understand all these reasons why they feel they must conform but use facts to explain why it is better to take the exceptional route at this time. Make them understand that they are among the most vulnerable but do not shout at them because it only creates resistance. At the very least, persuade them to get vaccinated so that at least they have some layer of protection when they attend these gatherings.

But critically, the most effective enforcers are the affected families. It is they who can take a lead in enforcing the protocols, because if they do not, relatives friends and the neighbours will continue to attend, creating a vicious cycle of infections in communities.

WaMagaisa