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Burying Jahir

In the "Cult of Escapism": Burying Jahir

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Burying Jahir

In the last week of November, a one and half year old boy wandered into the river and drowned. His body was discovered by his aunt’s boyfriend a few hours later, when he saw a hand sticking out of the water and the body being pushed into a rock.

“Julia” is the mother and a friend of mine in site. I found out about the death on a social visit to her family’s house and quickly became part of the multi-day burial process that is Ngäbe culture.

After a person dies, the family holds candlelight vigils every night up to the burial and then for four days afterwards. Most of the extended family stays up late each night, accompanying the dead’s nuclear family. Visitors bring food and coffee and condolences. The night before the burial, the family and friends stay up till dawn, guarding the body and keeping candles lit throughout the house.

The morning of, I visited the family and during conversation they asked, “So are you staying up till dawn with us tonight?” This seemed like one of those questions where you have to say yes. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would support them that night, but I figured at the very least, I could entertain them with my white skin and hairy arms.
That night, I arrived around ten with a bag of coffee. There were people and candles surrounding and filling the house and spreading over the yard. My site mate, Laura, had arrived ahead of me and since everyone assumes we do everything together, they asked where I had been. “I was fighting witches in my house with a broom” I replied. They laughed and asked, “Were they pretty witches or ugly witches?” “Ugly” I replied, “That’s why I was fighting them off!!” Raucous laughter. Nothing like some simple country humor to lighten the mood. I hugged Julia and she motioned for me to sit next to her.

For twenty minutes or so, I continued joking about ugly witches invading my house and my subsequent broom fights and realized that this would be my contribution for the rest of the night – comic relief. This is a role I’m comfortable with, since I can sometimes generate laughter here by simply walking into a room (“My God, he’s just so hairy! Har, har, har.”)

While I know the jokes and hairy arms probably helped, laughter felt foreign on such a sad night. For a few minutes, we would pass a joke around and everyone would smile. But when the joke faded, the sadness returned. A year and a half – there’s no laughing that off.

I spent most of the night inside the house with Julia and her sisters and their kids but occasionally, I would go out to the kitchen area (which is outside of the house) and talk with the men. Julia’s father, uncle and several other men had tasked themselves with watching the coffin, which is surrounded by candles and must be monitored the entire night.

The first time I approached the vigilant men, I opened my mouth to greet them, saw the coffin and was stunned silent. It was about as long as my arm. Again, the conversation, the joking, the focus on attending the candles and watching the kids – all this had distracted me from the reason why we were there and the coffin was a small, white, illuminated reminder.

Each time I spoke with the men, they would ask if I was tired and then, regardless of my answer, give me advice on staying up all night. “Just walk around a little.” “Talk to people; don’t sit alone.” “Drink coffee.” Maybe they thought white people never stay up late. Although the actual advice wasn’t particularly helpful, I enjoyed talking with the men and felt more holistically accepted into the wake process.

The children slept first and each hour, more people left or fell asleep, three to five people curled up on mattresses scattered on the ground. Around 2:30 am, Julia handed me a pillow and told me I could sleep if I wanted to. I leaned back widthwise on a corner of one of the mattresses, my feet sticking off and a child curled up beside me. The last thing I saw before sleeping was Julia’s father sitting in front of me and holding up three fingers. Three AM.
At 5:30, I woke with the first light of morning and went home to sleep for a few hours before the funeral. Everyone was asleep except the men, who still sat vigilantly over the small coffin, determined to keep the evil spirits away.

Jahir's grave - the leaves deter evil spirits from eating the body

I went to the graveyard around 11am and several men were just finishing digging the grave. The family and attendees stood watching, some talking, but most silent. Julia and her sisters were sitting on a log nearby and I went to them. Julia said, “This is the second child that I’ve lost. Both were under two years old.” I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. This is the only thing she said to me the entire day. 

Another typical grave, with all the dead's possessions on top
A Jehovah’s witness spoke and so did an Evangelical pastor, which just shows that around here, it doesn’t matter what kind of Christian you are, as long as you’re Christian. When the pastor finished, the gravediggers lined the side of the grave with thick branches. I asked a friend, Mariela, why they did this. She said that it prevents evil spirits from entering and eating the body. She also said that it prevents the earth from caving in on the coffin. I hesitated, “Isn’t that the point of burying the coffin?” She laughed and nodded, which means she made that last part up.

As the coffin was lowered, Julia lost control and tried to run for the grave. Her sisters and dad held her back and eventually had to carry her out of the graveyard. Others cried silently as each attendee took turns throwing a few handfuls of dirt on the grave. Once properly buried, the gravediggers place a certain plant on top that stings the mouth when chewed; the witch that tried to eat the body is thus deterred and later identifiable by the red marks on the mouth.

I left with a crowd, my shoulder damp with others’ tears and my cheeks damp with my own.


At December 20, 2011 at 6:38 PM , Blogger Lara said...

Heart breaking and beautifully written. Thank you.


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