Monday, August 17, 2009

A fine farewell to a father in law

The local undertaker in Accra, Ghana did a magnificent job of decorating the room where my father in law, Kpakpo Mensah, was laid out in state for the wake and funeral. When we talk about "going out in style," the old man went out in style. It also seemed better for him to be laid out in a family home, his mother's former home, an ancestral place, than in a commercial setting designed for that purpose. We viewed his body in the context of other, ongoing lives in the family, rather than other deaths of strangers.

Where I sat happened to have a clear sightline into the viewing room, so I could get a sense of how people interacted with the body. Many people paid their respects quietly, from a distance, but overall there was a more intense and physical response to the sight of the deceased than I can remember from attending funerals in the U.S. There was the sense of a healthy release of grief and resolution of feelings. As often happens at funerals anywhere, however, some of the more vivid displays of grief struck the inner sanctum of the family as surprising; and though this man was widely and deeply loved, one got the sense - as always - that some of the more flagrant mourners were acting at least in part out of personal need and dramatics rather than pure feeling for the man we had lost.

My wife, Karley, spent some time with the body before I arrived at the wake with our daughter. She warned me in advance, "Kpakpo has changed; be prepared for that." The choice of words seemed odd and touching. Of course, he had changed since I had last seen him - he had died. But I knew what she was trying to tell me - that the effects of his illness (pneumonia, which he at first neglected and the hospital at first failed to diagnose) and the long wait after his death until the family could gather together for the funeral had left changes the undertaker's art could not completely overcome or disguise.

And indeed, I may not have recognized him in death, had I not known who I was viewing. Mostly because, in life, he had always seemed so simple and so smiling, and the corpse was elaborately costumed and jewelled, in kente and gold, with a smile that was not quite his, if only because the smile of the living man flashed so fast and erupted into laughter, with dancing eyes, and no magic from the undertaker could make this smile do that again.

It is proper, perhaps, to array our dead like royalty, especially when so many imagine him ascended to a Kingdom, in the company, now, of the King of Kings. My father in law had been a devout believer as well. We exchanged letters when his daughter was pregnant with my daughter, and when he learned the pregnancy was difficult in a letter from me, he said he immediately broke into fervent prayer to God that mother and daughter would be healthy - would be "fine," to use a word he often used with me - and in the end they were.

Looking at his elaborately costumed and bejewelled corpse, I remembered visiting him at his own compound across town, where he would sit in the open air wearing only a pair of shorts, in no finery at all, with no need to perform to me that he had been a decorated soldier and a manager at a gold mine, that he was a wealthy, propertied, and successful man. He knew what he was worth and did not need to prove anything to anyone, certainly not to me, this son in law from another country, from another world. He would just sit with us, comfortably, in the simplest of clothes - almost simply only in his own skin - and smile, with dancing eyes, and say he hoped everything was "fine," and be delighted to hear that, in fact, so many things in our lives were quite "fine".

I will remember that simplicity, more than the finery in which I saw him last.

All photos by me. Click on them and they get bigger.


More in this series

Family and friends at Kpakpo Mensah's Homegoing

1 comment:

Cara Jensen said...

Chris, what an eloquent testimony