Funerals in Ethiopia are misunderstood by the outside world. It is not merely grieving for loved ones but rather countenancing all the grief of the human condition and all the pent-up sorrows of humankind.

Ethiopians, notoriously lax about keeping appointments, are as punctual as a German engineer when it comes to funerals.

“Do not be late,” warns a colleague to a man procrastinating about when he should leave his office to attend an afternoon funeral. “Funerals are the only time that everybody shows up on time.”

Eventually, the man hurries from his office into a rented cab. But unknown to him and as luck would have it, the funeral is held on a day when the entire city is locked down in a grinding traffic jam. The travel between Sarris Abo and the church of Gergi Giorgis, where the funeral takes place, descends into hours of excruciating stop-and-go traffic that seems interminable to both the cab driver and the anxious passenger.

“The funeral is already over, and the mourners would have left by now. They are done in a half hour or so, you know,” ventures the taxi driver to point out the futility of their present errand.

They both settle instead to go to the home of the deceased, where the family will return to sit for the funeral vigil.

Dirges, funerals and wakes are a way of life in this country. Their poignancy and how intimately they are intertwined in the Ethiopian ethos was made evident at the open and desolate farm fields of Ejere where Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plunged from the sky killing all its passengers two weeks ago.

Funerals in Ethiopia are misunderstood by the outside world. It is not merely grieving for loved ones but rather countenancing all the grief of the human condition and all the pent-up sorrows of humankind.

The Ethiopian funeral rituals, at least in its urban manifestation, was on full display in Ejere but unfortunately, it was wrongly interpreted by some in the world media.

“Mourners pay their respects at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302,” trumpeted the Baltimore Sun on March 14, 2019, underneath a picture of a row of black-clad women standing in the middle of the field.

In Ethiopia, mourning is not simply paying respects to the dead, it is part of a way of life like Shintoism in Japan. It is the countenance of all the grief of the human condition and the expression of all the pent-up sorrow of humankind - not just the grieving of the mourners for their loved ones.

The world media recorded scenes of grieving men and women clad in black shawls and white cotton wraps twirling in the agony of their losses but overlooked the cultural shades.

Funerals and dirges, Lekso as they are called here, are ancient rituals in this country that seem to have altered very little in the last millennia or two.

Ethiopian death laments, even in urban areas, are public affairs where the wailing, flailing and the rhythmic swaying of the mourners intensifies and rises to a higher and higher tempo as the hour of internment approaches.

Funerals in Ethiopia are misunderstood by the outside world. It is not merely grieving for loved ones but rather countenancing all the grief of the human condition and all the pent-up sorrows of humankind.

Funeral dirges, when practised in rural Ethiopia, are usually held in the open air, where men and women stand facing each other in semicircles.

The dirge begins with a slow intonation and swaying of the women who croon the ancient funeral songs led typically by a funeral crier, who leads the dirge in steady, rhythmic and melodic lyrics.

The women follow the crier and sway back and forth, beat their chests, harmonise and chant the chorus - all the time keeping the beat with their feet and shoulders.

The men stand opposite, a little to the side, slinging their wooden clubs on their right shoulders and swaying gently, gyrating and grunting in unison to the harmonic accompaniment of the mournful sing-song verses of the mourner. Every now and then the men hop, stomp and beat the ground with their feet – they, too, keep the rhythm going.

Customarily, the casketed body reposes under the shade of a few umbrellas around which the mourners gather.

Alas, at the Flight 302 crash site there were no bodies to repose, only the fragmented remains of the dead strewn across a bleak landscape. The mourners made due with a makeshift wooden totem adorned with flowers as a focus of their grief.

Underneath this symbol, they carried aloft the framed pictures of their loved ones and wailed; others carried tokens of the deceased as they beat their chests and cry; while a few grabbed handfuls of dirt from the field and threw it against their faces and bodies.

The local men, women and children of Ejere joined the mourners from the sidelines, said a local reporter. Their heads covered and wearing their embroidered shoals reversed - its embellished trimming pointing up to symbolise death - they joined the mourners as if they, too, had lost their loved ones.

In the end, there were no adornments of the corpses, or velvet covers, nor any coloured flowers laid at their tombs. There were no prayers offered at the graveside of the dead, nor any orations. No hats were removed, nor were there any salutations of the dead.  There were no priests at the interment, no washing of the hands, no burning of incense; no graves were dug to entomb the corpses. No ornaments were placed, nor was there any feast offered to the mourners. They simply walked away from the desolate and forsaken field leaving behind the remains of their loved ones to the fate of the elements.

The mourners at Ejere were wailing and flailing for all the 157 victims of the plane crash; for all their long-dead ancestors; for all the wrongs and tragedies that face humankind; and for their own uncertain fate with certain death itself.

The finality of death and loss are touched upon in the Ethiopian dirge poems, rephrases, chants, lyrics and harmonies. Death is a reminder of the transitory nature of life, and it is celebrated with elaborate rituals and deep expressions of grief to rid the living body from its oppressive hold.

Funeral vigils are held over several days to give everyone a chance to mourn; to ward off death’s lingering bitterness; to cast it asunder and stand guard against it lest it returns too soon; and to drain the soul of death’s unpleasantness, and to live on despite its tyrannies.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 23,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 986]

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