Monday, August 24, 2009

Libations to the dead man, down in his grave

When the casket is in the grave and the pastor has delivered his remarks, the funeral is usually over. But then, I had never been part of a Homegoing ceremony in a West African family that still kept its ties to the old ways.

Once the pastor was finished with the Christian ceremony at Osu Military Cemetery, two men from the village - my father in law's cousin and uncle - immediately shifted into action, holding what seemed to be a dispute with a strange assortment of materials in their clutches.

I quickly understood that they were the custodians of a more traditional spirit ceremony, and they were disputing who would lead it and perhaps some details of its observance.

My wife's brother Cheri - who had not shown himself much during the Christian ceremony - was at their side, holding a plastic bag of more ceremonial materials.

They were speaking in the local language, so I couldn't follow the direction of the debate, but the cousin seemed to have won because it was he who hopped dramatically into the grave.

He produced half of what I took to be an avocado and held it aloft to his uncle, who began to unscrew the lid from a bottle of local gin. Libations to the spirit of the dead evidently were in order.

Now I suddenly understood something that had mystified me during the funeral service back at the family compound in the shantytown of Nima, when the cousin came back from the food area with what seemed to be an avocado and showed it with delight to his uncle.

At that time, I thought it was odd for him to be thinking of a snack to carry away from a funeral service. But there was nothing odd about it at all. It was a snack, but not for him - it was spirit food for my father in law, Kpakpo Mensah.

Later I learned that Kpakpo's cousin insisted it was his spiritual obligation to lead the ceremony inside the grave. The cousin said his own spirit would be worried by the spirit of the dead man if he did not care for him in this way. Still, I sensed that the uncle never quite relinquished his own claim to the sacred duty.

I later was told that the sacred vessels for the libations being laid at the foot of the dead man's tomb were not avocados, but pawpaws.

I was deeply thrilled to be present for this ceremonial observance. I have a deep interest and profound respect for the traditional ways; I have studied them and even lived variants of them in my own country in American Indian ceremonies.

My first teacher of African ways was an old man from the West African bush, in what became the nation of Liberia after colonialism. My teacher, Nymah Kumah, had described to me cultural patterns that he proudly declared dated back to the Stone Age and had been adopted, subsequently, by Ancient Egypt.

As the cousin from the village placed spirit food and libations inside the crypt with the dead man, I did indeed feel in the presence of a trembling respect shown to the dead that dated back to the Stone Age and had been adopted by the royalty and scribes of Ancient Egypt.

The relationship of Kpakpo's cousin to the sacred materials of the spirit food was intense and personal. We all know the Catholic concept of the sacrament, when the priest is thought to transmute bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Imagine if you considered it your personal responsibility to send your cousin, your brother, into the spirit world with the nourishment he would need?

Traditional ceremonies tend to have sacred math. I know it in American Indian contexts - everything in fours, like the seasons, or the limbs of a person - I didn't know it in Mina ceremony. But I noticed the repetitions of gestures and knew the villagers were keeping count.

The intensity of the blessing, the breathing of life and language into the spirit food for the dead, who are never dead - who are only as dead as we allow them to be.

It was an important translation, that the living standing on the surface of the earth were passing the sacred materials to the living standing in the grave with the dead. Final transitions were being marked at this moment. We were nearing the time when Kpakpo would travel ahead without us, and we would travel ahead without him.

We all understood the cousin from the village to be basking, to some extent, in the theatricality of the moment, but such is the spirit. We are led, spiritually, by those willing to embody the theatre of the sacred. It is not for everyone, and no one shoulders the sacred with strict purity of motive.

I will never forget the living man reaching from the grave of the dead man for what the dead man would need to travel in peace into the world of the spirit, that awaits us all.

I have to leave these dedicated ministers in mid-ceremony, because it was at this point that someone from the family came to me and told me it was time for me to leave - my wife was in the taxi and it was time for me to go. If there was one thing more important to me than traditional religion in burying my father in law, it was making the Homegoing as easy for his daughter as I possibly could. So I left the grave, the dead, the living ministering the dead, my spirit light with mission, a happy man. The dead are only as dead as we allow them to be.

Pictures are by me. Click them and they get bigger.

1 comment:

Torchandtonic said...

That was moving....I wish more Americans would adopt some of these elements...