Saturday 29 June 2013

Santana Cemetery

An early start, 4 am.  I had spent the previous day preparing my kit like all old soldiers do.  My shoes were polished to a gleam, I had sponged my suit down and pressed it and my shirt was gleaming white and so well starched I knew I would crackle when I moved.  I even managed to find some dark socks with no holes.

I do not drive anymore so I had offered Roddie, my driver, a bed for the night since it is a long drag from the city to my place but he insisted he would be here at four.  I went to bed early but left the TV on.  Lying in the dark before I am well and truly knackered often leaves my mind dancing gaily down insanity beach until the sun rises leaving me wondering where the night went so sometimes it is easier to try and concentrate on something as soporific and repetitive as Sky News and wake up refreshed thinking, ‘Oh Jesus, I left the TV on’.

This night, however, the old tricks weren’t going to work as I knew the next day I was going to help my wife bury her mother.  I hadn’t seen Marcia, or Alex, since they rushed off to town on Sunday morning.  Marcia had robbed all the cash out of the till leaving me with nothing, banks aren’t open on a Sunday after all, but I wasn’t particularly concerned and there are many who looking at me would say that I could do with a few fewer meals anyway.  Like most men I just picked the fridge empty; last night’s meal being stale bread with tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, ultra hot pepper sauce and a tomato which I found frozen in frost right at the back of the fridge, all washed down with beer.  There’s plenty of cold beer left in the shop.  Sleep was basically out of the question.

I had nothing to do with the funeral arrangements.  I had been relegated to holding the fort.  Marcia would ring me occasionally informing me that a decent coffin would cost this much, transport would be a problem unless I could come up with a convoy of vehicles and could I please speak to Alex who, when he came on the phone sobbed, ‘My Granny, she’s, she’s, she’s DEAD!’

Marcia has two older brothers, both successful.  One is an agricultural engineer in the Ministry of Agriculture, the other a petroleum engineer who has been working in Canada these last fifteen years, Saldanha.  The Canadian’s mother in law was an inseparable friend of Theresa, Marcia’s mother.  When she heard that her lifelong friend had died, she had a heart attack and is now in intensive care in hospital.  The poor bastard had flown all the way to Angola to bury his mother and was now having to arrange a flight for his wife in case she had to do the same.  This was slowly turning into a Greek tragedy.

I was feeling pretty bloody sad yesterday afternoon but became incandescent when Marcia rang me to say that my bank, the account I hold there of which she is a signatory, had refused to allow her to make a withdrawal.  I cannot remember exactly what I said to the bank manager when I rang him but I know it involved him handing the cash over right then and there on the condition that I was standing outside his bank this morning to countersign the withdrawal slip.  Apparently, as they had not seen me personally for nearly five years and, according to their records, regular monthly salary payments had stopped over two years ago, they were rather curious to know if I was still alive.  What sixth sense is it that bureaucrats possess enabling them to strike with red tape at the most inconvenient moment?  The funeral cortège was due to leave the deceased’s house for the cemetery at 9 am.  Clearly if the bank would only open at nine I would not make it.  I thought about just letting the bank manager go hang himself but then that would be the last time he ever handed cash over without a signature on my word so after being number one in the bank queue and a quick scrawl later, Roddie had the pedal to the metal through the Luandan rush hour to get to the cemetery on time.

Santana cemetery is in the middle of the town, the part known as the Alta Cidade, High City.  The local authorities had evidently scraped together enough funds to white wash the entrance but it was still a pretty dismal place.  We parked up right next to the entrance so I could see, through the impressive wrought iron gates, the rows of mausoleums beyond.  Santana cemetery is vast and desolate.  I know, this was the third time I would see someone buried there.  The first was back in the old days.  My side kick, an Angolan Police liaison officer assigned to me for special investigations had been ambushed outside his house by the very gang we were closing in on.  Since we had arranged to meet at his house to compare notes, I arrived only minutes after the incident in time to see him die.

Clearly, the funeral of Marcia’s mother would not be the first or only funeral that day.  Every ten minutes a cortege would appear.  Some could afford an expensive hearse.  Most turned up in Mitsubishi L200 or Toyota Hilux conversions, the rear load bays neatly glassed in and the bodywork resprayed black.  The coffins of the poor were unloaded from the backs of battered pick-ups.  Waiting for them were the cemetery staff.  Dressed in workman’s overalls they stood there in bored groups around their biers, crudely welded frames fitted with balloon tyres to better cover the rough terrain.  Every time a hearse turned up, waiting relatives and friends would surge forward to establish whether this was ‘their’ funeral.  The disappointed ones would dissolve into chattering groups while the main party dissolved into tears.  At least one or two women per coffin fainted.  So mundane were these scenes to the cemetery staff I noticed one taking the opportunity to enjoy a casual slash up the wall while the mourners were distracted.  With a captive audience, street hawkers filtered through the crowd flogging tat;, phone cards, fake Ray Ban sunglasses, artificial hair, watches, newspapers, canned drinks, wreaths made from plastic at $50 a pop, you name it.  With all that dust around, I was looking for the shoe shine boy selling whisky and cigarettes.  I never found him.

I was in a borrowed car, the owner a non-smoker so every time I wanted a cigarette I would get out and lean on the bonnet under the increasingly hot sun.  There isn’t much to cheer a chap’s soul parked up outside a cemetery.  Roddie and I tried playing the Tottie spotting game the rules of which are very simple but rely on honesty.  We both scan the crowd and call a good looking girl to the other’s attention.  If by mutual agreement she tops the scales, the guy who calls her is in line to win the bet.  We spotted plenty of astonishingly good looking girls but in such a bleak environment it was a pretty miserable pastime so neither of us had our hearts in it.

My phone rang.  It was a family member of whom I had no recollection saying that the body had now left the house and would arrive at Santana within the hour.  So Theresa Tito, mother of my wife and adored grandmother of my son was no longer Theresa Tito, she was ‘the body’.

Finally it was our turn.  I saw Marcia climb out of the hearse but she was quickly swamped by relatives and friends so I hung back a bit.  I was the only white man there.  She looked so distraught, so desperate it was as if something evil was stamping on my heart.  Roddie, seeing tears suddenly cascading down my cheeks dug his maw into my upper arm and said, ‘Força Sr. Tomas’.  I can’t bear to see Marcia so miserable but at African funerals, it is women who blub, not men.

Marcia comes from a well connected family so there were Ministers there, even a Governor or two so each had to have his say.   The coffin on its bier was pushed inexorably forward ten yards at a time.  At each pause another person had his chance to share a eulogy.  Short of stabbing my way through the crowd, there was no way I would make it to Marcia’s side.  Several times she made eye contact with me but about twenty rows back what was I supposed to do, punch her relatives and friends out?

Finally we got to the end of the pavement.  From here on in, not even 4x4 biers could cross a terrain obstructed by the rubble of demolished tombs and head stones long dead relatives had failed to keep up the rental payments on.  The graves were no more than six inches apart.  I looked down and realized I was standing on the prone headstone of someone called Manuel da Souza and his family.  He died in 1898 and the last of his family to be interred in this forlorn spot died in 1970.  I am sure the once undoubtedly esteemed Sr. Souza would not have appreciated my plates of meat all over his grave let alone, bearing in mind he died in colonial times, those of the natives as well but I was grateful for the stable platform his memorial provided and the irony of being witness to the prediction that the African would trample on the body of his white oppressor did not escape me, especially as I was the only living white man present.

To my horror, Marcia’s older brother pushed through the crowd and laid a firm hand on my back, guiding me toward the coffin.  I lined up with the other brothers and uncles and took hold.  My last recollection of Marcia’s mother was of a slight, if tall, woman.  Emaciated by lingering death I could not work out how she could be so heavy.  With my vision restricted to the six inches separating me from the nape of my brother-in-law´s neck I had no idea what my feet were doing as they clawed and stumbled their way over one grave after another and all the intervening rubble.  Apart from a bit of unmanly blubbing when I first caught sight of Marcia as she arrived, I had been pretty cool.  Now I was sweating like a condemned man on his way to the gallows.  If I, as the only white man present caused five of Marcia’s brothers and uncles to stumble, dashing the coffin of their dear relative open on the ground I would quite justifiably have had my bludgeoned corpse tossed into the same grave.

We made it to the hole and even I, with my restricted vision, could see there were a few problems.  So could my brothers and so we laid Theresa down on a neighboring grave.  A canopy had been erected over Theresa’s grave which was a nice touch except that the central supports precluded swinging the coffin in over the hole the gap between them being only three feet.  While the choir sang we dealt with this pretty quickly by unclipping the legs of one support to provide the clearance necessary.  Stuffing a loved one down a hole is a pretty grave moment in anyone’s life so you can imagine the distress caused when everyone suddenly realizes the hole isn’t big enough.  I could see that.  Everyone else could see that.  Everyone except the cemetery staff who evidently thought they should just give it a go.  Twice they tried to rattle Theresa into her grave and twice Theresa refused to go.  And the choir sang on.  Once again Theresa was parked in the sun on top of a neighboring grave while the grave diggers set to adding another foot to the grave.  This meant chipping into the concrete sarcophagus at what would be her feet.  Mere shovels couldn’t dent 100 year old cement so pick axes were brought in.  And the choir sang on.

At the graveside I had finally been reunited with Marcia who clung to me sobbing her heart out.  I was looking at a couple of idle concrete chipping wasters wishing I could cut their hearts out.

On the third attempt, they finally managed to slot her in, feet in someone else’s grave.

Marcia’s older sister gave the graveside eulogy.  All this had been too much for me and the taps opened again. She spoke clearly and eloquently.  In less than a minute she said all that needed saying.  I stood tall and supported a weeping Marcia on my arm but the tears flooded down my cheeks.  A bunch of amateurs were consigning Marcia’s mother to the dirt from whence she came.  As we each cast a handful of soil onto the coffin, the choir from the Catholic Church gave voice once again.  They sang in the language of her home province, Kimbundo.  I could not understand a word but the tune was Auld Lang Syne.  I have no idea what they were singing but I sang, ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot…’  It was beautiful.  The choir harmonized, I have never heard anything so moving.  You should not rate funerals, they are all miserable but this, despite the hiccups, was the best funeral I have ever attended.

Then the brothers climbed into the hole and proceeded to smash the coffin with pick axes.

Marcia hurried me away and Roddie drove us to the wake.  Now I really needed a good slug of whisky and Roddie didn’t let me down, stopping at the first roadside stand and getting me a bottle.

‘It’s a scam’, he told me after I had swallowed a good belt.  ‘Marcia bought a very expensive coffin.  The funeral agency tip off the cemetery workers so no sooner is the body in the ground, they dig it up again, tip the body back into the hole and collect a few hundred bucks from the funeral agency who sell the coffin again’.

I took another swig and lit a cigarette.  ‘So you mean to say, it is possible to be buried here in a second hand coffin?’ I asked him.

‘A coffin like that,’ he said, ‘maybe three or four times unless, of course, the family smash it’

Over 500 people turned up for the funeral and subsequent wake not counting the congregation of the Catholic Church of which Theresa was a member.  Tradition dictates that Marcia must spend the next seven days in her mother’s house so I am here alone with Alex who is now sleeping quietly on the couch with a belly full of my very special Tagliatelli Carbonara, his favourite.  Theresa was just my Mother-in-Law.  I hardly knew her so my grief at her passing is only fuelled by my wife’s sorrow.  Alex has lost his beloved Grandmother.  He, at four years of age, has seen her cold dead body sealed into a casket and clumsily buried.  Now, in the absence of his mother, with just the two of us here for the next seven days, he keeps asking me if his Mummy is OK.  ‘Sure she is’, I say handing my mobile over, ‘do you want to call her?’

‘Can I call Granny as well?’


  1. A beautiful and painful piece of writing Tom
    We have all been there...... Perhaps not as colourfully as your experience but that's the British For you
    Take care old chum

    1. The funeral was on Thursday. It took me three days to write this. I just can't bear to see Marcia and little Alex so upset. When it came time for me to leave the wake, Alex begged to go with me. On the way back we stopped off at the market and I bought him some snazzy Spiderman beach shorts and a football. Two days later he is sleeping on the sofá with all the pillows off the bed clad in his shorts and hugging his football. I have lifted him back on to the bed which I have made up and he is sleeping quietly but I reckon he will only really relax once Marcia is back. Last night, for the first time in over a year, he swamped the mattress so I guesss he is taking it hard.

      I woke up last night and discovered him sitting bolt upright in bed stark naked. What's up son? I asked him. My shorts are wet Daddy, he replied. No sweat Son, I said, slide over my side, we'll swap places.

      Shit, I have slept in waterlogged trenches, I can spend a night lying in my son's piss if it's going to calm him down.

  2. I hung on to the end and found my eyes wet for all of you. Poor Alex, he will have to write letters to his Granny.

  3. Hippo, you and your family have been on my mind since your last post. The first funeral I attended was my father's at 14 and I can still feel that physical pain of being told he had died by the police because I was away from my family at the time. I had to live with that grief on my own for four days until I could travel home to my family and his funeral. Losing my father changed my life in so many ways which only my family can understand. Family is absolutely everything in helping us to make sense of things. And when my son lost his father at two, I knew straight away that my purpose in life was to shepherd his journey to adult life without a father because at least I had had the privilege of having mine for those 14 years. Everything your family needs is already within you. Everything that has happened in life has brought you to this point and you will know what to do. To be able to write about these things and share it with a bunch of strangers like myself takes courage. I trust that this gives you the strength you need for Alex and Marcia. Take care.

  4. Every country has its own funereal customs, but smashing the coffin so that it's not pilfered (for a second using) is a new one to me. A very moving account.

    I think Joanne's idea of getting Alex to write a letter to his grandmother is a good one. He can let go of all his emotions on paper, probably easier than he can in other ways. Death is a difficult concept for the young.

    Chin-up my friend... these things take a long time.

  5. Sometime i forget just how great a story teller you are, sorry that it was M's mums death that inspired you to write it, but that was a great piece of story telling.


  6. Rotten things from start to finish, funerals.

    Only movement in one dimension ever gets you away from them; time.

  7. We all know how well you will look after Alex, and Marcia when she returns home.
    Heartfelt words already written by others above. Suffice to say, our thoughts are with you all.

  8. I was wondering how the funeral went and how all of you were coping. It's so terribly difficult to see people we love grieve and know there's precious little we can do but hug them and let them cry.

  9. It does not surprise me that you can write so eloquently about a funeral, evoking in your readers the slightest feeling that they were there as well. Alex's request to call his Granny too must have been heart-wrenching. I hope that as with all of us, the elapse of time will provide the healing we all need from these life-teaching experiences.

  10. If this had been fiction I might well have said - a wonderful and earthy evocation of an African funeral scene - but of course it was real life so I will just say that you brought it all so vividly to life for your readers. Soon, hopefully, your lives will get back to normal and Marcia will return to monitor and moderate your oft-times unruly conduct - "dancing gaily" once more.

  11. Through the web of tragedy comes a glimmer of comedy. I'm not sure, however, which is which!

  12. 3 months ago I lost my wife and our 4 year old daughter lost her mother. Not being of any religious bent but looking for a way to explain where she has gone, I settled on telling her that she was now a star in the sky. A terrible cop-out,I know, but it has given her something to look upon and talk to. Whenever she needs to send a special message to her mum we tie a message to a big firework and blast it off into the sky. It helps her to feel she has made a connection. Don't know if such things are available where you are, but might help Alex to do something similar?

  13. When my brother died, the mother of his daughter told her the same kind of thing. So he was called Daddy Star. When we came back to Australia, my daughter started saying that she had an uncle star. So Betula, we may be on to the rebirth of a old style religion. But seriously, it may have seemed like a cop out but I think it is a good way to discuss it with younger children. Heck my 90 year grandmother believes that's what happens and when a baby is born one of the stars come down. Ok, she wants to believe that. - Tom, nothing I can add for you except that you are your family are in my thoughts

  14. You have a big heart....and Marcia and Alex will need you even more now...take care of yourself.


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