Saturday, August 22, 2009

The flag, the casket, and the cross

There was a parking problem as we neared Osu Military Cemetery in the funeral train of my father in law. At first, I thought there must have been a game getting started at Accra's huge national sports stadium, right across the street from the cemetery.

And there may have been, though as we exited the taxi and went inside the cemetery grounds, it became clear that the crowd of mourners was large enough to explain the congestion.

My wife and her oldest living sister, Mary Magdalene, both in mourning black with traditional headwraps, conferred with the pastor and the soldier who was overseeing the participation of the Ghana Army.

It was a distinct and strange sight - a large crowd waiting outside a cemetery for a funeral to begin, within sight of a sports stadium, which was not especially crowded. As an American, I associate mobs of waiting people with sporting events, not ceremonies to mark the passing of an elder.

The gravediggers were still putting some finishing touches to their work when we arrived. This, too, struck me as distinctly West African, from my experience over a number of visits here.

Ghana definitely is a work in progress, where human efforts and improvisations are not completely obscured under a patina of professionalism, as we often find in the U.S. Half the homes one sees in Accra are half-built, for example. Why not come across a grave, one's final home and resting place, while it is still under construction?

With my interest in literature and spiritual matters, I will confess a fascination with cemeteries and gravediggers. Digging a grave is among the most primal of human activities. Helplessly, I think of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet.

My father in law, Kpakpo Mensah, was a veteran of the Ghana Army who retired with 18 years of service, which made him deserving of a military burial. Another military funeral was scheduled for the same day, and the two graves had been dug side by side.

The hearse is another iconic artifact that marks the boundary between the living and the dead, a boundary that is flimsier than the living might at times wish for it to be.

M.M., as we call Mary Magdalene, had hired a vintage Mercedes-Benz hearse that was, I thought, quite stately.

As the family of the dead man gathered near the grave, it was another opportunity to admire the custom of choosing a textile print and having clothes made in the same fabric for family members. Funerals are a time when we long for unity and connection, and this custom helps to satisfy that longing.

You can see, on the other side of the hearse, one of the blue busses rented to transport family members from the funeral ceremony at the family compound to the cemetery.

I'm sure I was not alone in finding something noble and comforting in the presence of soldiers assissting us with the burial.

At the same time, human beings what we are, there were comments made, off to the side, that one might have expected for a contingent of soldiers to be a little sturdier and more assured in their efforts to hoist and carry a coffin.

Another aside: Notice that the people on the billboard - on all the billboards - are all black. It's always interesting for me - as a white man who works in the minority press in the U.S. - to be in a country where people are always represented as black because that is the overwhelming human norm here.

Some guests from the burial that preceded ours seemed to linger for a moment to see what sort of ceremony we had in store.

Of course, when you live and die in Ghana, your cemetery landscaping is likely to include tall gorgeous palm trees.

I find the colors and design of the Ghana flag to be beautiful and was thrilled to see Kpakpo's coffin draped with that flag.

I like the soldier's arm on his fellow soldier's shoulder at the rear of the casket convoy.

If you click on this image to enlarge it and scan the faces in the crowd, you will see some fascinating emotions on people who will loom large later in the burial service.

The videographer M.M. hired (on the other side of the casket) was always in place for a great shot and produced excellent DVDs of the four-day Homegoing celebration.

Emotion really begins to descend upon people when you see the casket begin to be lowered into the grave.

There is finality - and then there is finality.

And we all know a similar end awaits us all.

I was grateful to have an assigned task - taking photographs - to take my mind off the reality of the moment, like the soldiers who had purely technical concerns at hand.

The older man to the left, in the traditional wrap showing his bare shoulder, is Kpakpo's uncle. He is one of the traditionalists who came over from the ancestral village of Aneho in the neighboring country of Togo.

It is said the single black star on the Ghana flag represents Ghana's status as the first independent modern African nation-state.

A new technical problem for the soldiers, as the family coped with emotion: folding up the flag.

Coping with emotion.

"I stand at the crossroads." - From an Akan dirge

As the soldiers fold the flag,

one corner at a time,

it reveals the reality of the casket,

the reality of the final resting place,

the final resting place of the man we have lost,

and the presence of the cross,

for many, the promise of the cross, of everlasting life.

The flag has been folded.

The soldiers' work is done.

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