There’s something so quiet and constrained in the funerals I’ve been to in Europe. A fear of any sound, people only allowing themselves silent tears. Closed caskets, celebrations that most often end as you exit the ceremony, and so much privacy in suffering. And recently, as I attend more funerals and support grieving family and friends, as well as feeling loss myself, I’m aware of big differences in how grief is dealt with. Whether in my Congolese family, the Swiss communities I’m involved in or even on social media, different rules seem to apply to grieving in public.
In the past 2 years, I’ve buried my grandmother in the loud affair that is a Congolese wake, lost an older sister in the silence and distance of the early pandemic and watched my father retire upstairs after too many phone calls with bad news. I attended a socially distanced funeral and sent my warmest thoughts to friends over and over. And of course, after public tragedies and the loss of famous figures, I scrolled through my feeds to dozens of posts in their memory.
In Kinshasa I was able to see my grandmother in her coffin, the crying was shared, and the wake lasted a week before my sister and I had even landed on the day of the funeral. We had badges of Koko’s face around our necks, and our parents were all dressed in a “uniform” (the grieving party pick a wax print and each member has their own outfit sewn from it). It felt like the whole neighbourhood had sent a representative.
My questions today lie around the question of “who is allowed to grieve?” and more specifically, “am I allowed to grieve this person personally?”. I guess I sometimes get annoyed at the social media aspect of a death, when every- and anybody seems to want to publicly show they are “mourning” a passing. Some of it feels superficial and performative. However, with too many occurrences in my circle this past year, and a sense that I can feel my father’s grief at losing someone I had perhaps only met once, I realise that death, loss and the emotions they stir are felt by us all, and it’s a weight that should be honoured and heard.
At a funeral here in Switzerland the other day, my mum joked that we had never sat so far forward at a ceremony. She was referring to the time at her aunt’s funeral when the “close family” were called to remain in the Church and move to the front. The five of us (mum, dad and us three girls) stayed, but something stopped us from stepping forwards and joining the more “direct” circle. Why did we feel we didn’t have as much right as them to mourn? That feeling stayed with me, a question about the hierarchy of grief. Just this week, while discussing a gathering for a common acquaintance who was in hospital, I heard my friends say “I don’t see myself turning up there, I don’t feel like I know him well enough, it wouldn’t be my place”. He passed yesterday and I wonder if I’ll see them at the distanced candle lighting ceremony tonight. Why are we scared of showing we care? Why is grieving such a private matter we’re scared to disturb?
If death and grieving weren’t such taboos in our western cultures, we wouldn’t feel we have to say “I didn’t know him so well”, or “She wasn’t actually my sister, just my cousin”. I wish we’d normalize grieving with friends, showing up to pay respects to acquaintances. We should recognise that a loss in the community affects us all. The restrictions we live with now, that make gatherings like the one planned tonight illegal, really don’t help with learning to mourn together. If you can remember someone -the sound of their laugh, the taste of their signature dish, the stories your partner told you about them – then their memory lives on in you, and why shouldn’t you show up to mourn, and share, if the opportunity is there?
Back at this week’s funeral, as I linked arms with my mother and we stepped forward, ahead of the rest of the congregation to follow the coffin to be lowered into the grave, she said “should we really be leading?” and made to stand back to let others go before us. All I had to answer was “We loved him! Why be afraid of it being seen?”.