Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Death with Dignity

The last visit with my paternal grandfather was sad. His mind seems to have receded back a generation or two and he mistook me for my mother. The conversation was a bit awkward when he called me Janet (my mother's name) and asked me how Anne was doing. He died at the ripe old age of 93 and no one thought of his 'forgetfulness' as a symptom of illness. In fact everyone in our village understood that he was suffering from old age. His mind was allowed to wander undisturbed and in full understanding that his condition was expected and acceptable. One thing to be said for our village communities is the social security net of the extended family which ensured that the dignity of our elderly relatives was preserved in their final years. We supported them in their homes until they passed on then the family came together for the burial and funeral rites in what was strictly managed as a family affair.
But that was before we travelled and watched cable TV. Enterprising Ugandans have learnt that there is money to be made from old age and death, so nursing homes and funeral parlors are creeping in to erode the culture that surrounded our rites of passage. The simplicity and dignity of funerals is being replaced by the same vulgarity displayed at weddings. Social commentary and carefully positioned photographers focus on the place of death, the funeral company that is contracted, the number of wreaths, the size and style of the casket, the suits of the pall bearers and the outfits of the closely bereaved. A well draped widow in large, dark sunglasses with orphans in matching black outfits make for good cover stories for tabloids. Yet all the glamor cannot match the simple dignity and intimacy of my grandfather's funeral. The point was driven home when I returned to my deceased husband's graveside the day after his burial to find the pile of flowers we had left there was all gone. The carefully chosen wreaths picked by individuals to express their fond farewells were packed by the funeral company as we walked away from the grave weeping. The local undertakers who stayed behind to cover the grave were not accustomed to the new style funerals so they assumed that it was the norm for the pall bearers to pack the flowers back into the empty hearse. They did not realize that the grave was being plundered!

At 50 I know that we cannot stop the wave of modernity that comes with globalization and increasing affluence but I hope that we can identify the best practices in our cultures and preserve them jealously.

— feeling pissed off.

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