Monday, July 21, 2008

The Funeral

The Thursday after Leonard Musonerwa died, his family held a beautiful traditional funeral for him. I was at work, so I missed the morning viewing. The family transported the body from King Faisal Hospital to their home in the Gatsata neighborhood of Kigali, where he lay for viewing by family and friends.

At noon, I attended the funeral at the St. Matthews Cathedral in Kiyovu. It was all in Kinyarwanda, and I struggled to catch a word here or there. There was singing through the entire service, interspersed with sermons and remembrances from friends and family. Since it was a Catholic service, there was a beautiful if somewhat chaotic Communion. The entire service was filmed by a couple of people with camcorders, and unfortunately, as the only muzungu in the crowd, I felt that the camera was a little too focused on me and my emotion. It was an intensely personal time for me, and I didn’t particularly want it on tape.

About an hour and a half later, the service ended and Leonard’s family gathered around the coffin, carrying it out to the ambulance they rented. It was the only vehicle big enough to carry it. Mrs. Musonerwa sat in the front of the car, quietly mourning, as people came to her, whispering “Wihangane,” an expression of sympathy.

Several buses had been rented for close family and older guests. I didn’t have a ride, but a stranger took my hand and led me to a car full of more strangers. We drove with our hazard lights on all the way to Remera, to a graveyard known in Kinyarwanda as the Home for Everyone. We ambled down a dirt lane, beside some elaborate tiled graves, and some simpler plain concrete ones. There were thousands of graves, all on a hillside overlooking a pastoral hill. After parking, we stumbled around the graves until we caught up with the crowd that had formed.


Leonard’s daughters were wearing matching mushananas, the traditional dress that Rwandan women wear for special occasions. His sons were all in pressed wool suits, shoes shined. Mrs. Musonerwa watched as the coffin was lifted onto planks over a deep, concrete-walled grave.

More songs followed, and the priest said a couple more words before using a brush to sprinkle some holy water on and around the casket. Each of the immediate family members took a turn sprinkling some water before Mrs. Musonerwa made her final, loving remarks. Then the cemetery workers came with rope and lowered the casket into the grave. The covered the top with planks of wood, then a tarp, and then mixed water with a pile of dirt at the side of the grave to make a thick mud. It was scooped on top of the tarp and a wooden cross with Leonard’s name was planted at the top of the grave.


After that, families were called to lay their wreaths and flowers on top, and the ceremony concluded with a prayer.

The wake followed the funeral, and everyone went to an outdoor bar in Kicukiro. As people filed in, they performed a Rwandan tradition of washing one’s hands after a funeral. The same happens after the closing ceremonies of Genocide Memorial Week in April.

Fantas and water were supplied by the family. It’s supposed to be the happy part of a funeral—family members and friends are able to catch up, especially those who live far away. It wasn’t as joyous as I (or, probably, Leonard) would have hoped, but there was a wonderful turnout. I was surprised how many people I recognized from Gisenyi. (Even the town drunk was there—and she was surprisingly sober!)

In the Rwandan tradition, the family builds a fire in front of the house, and a family member must stay awake to tend to the fire. It is just a family affair, so I did not participate. And a week after the death, the family holds another small ceremony to conclude the period of mourning.

I felt blessed to have been a part of the funeral, because it was wonderful to celebrate him (even though I couldn’t quite understand what people were saying). Hundreds of people came to remember him, and it’s such a tribute to the wonderful and giving person he was.

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