I buried my father on Zoom. Was I laying my culture to rest?


As I watch my father’s casket being lowered into the grave from thousands of kilometres away

in a London flat, I wonder what my dad would have made of it all.

The Banyankole culture, of which my father was a strong advocate, has strict cultural mores that have helped guide generations through life and stipulated how they should be buried at its end. It demanded my presence at my father’s funeral, to pay my last respects and perform rites.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has robbed me of the chance to travel back to Ishaka in southwest Uganda. Instead, a centuries-old tradition has been reduced to just another event tunnelling through shaky internet to Zoom on my laptop.

More people are watching the funeral online than are physically present. Even in these unprecedented times, I struggle to understand why I and hundreds of mourners aren’t there as the Banyankole culture demands.

My dad was 94. I saw him in February during a short visit and, yes, age was slowing him but even with dementia he seemed invincible. In normal times a man of my father’s stature would be given a fitting funeral: a two-week mourning period, with elaborate rites and hundreds of people paying their respects.

The permanence of our vibrant, colourful and proud culture is now uncertain with one of its defenders and ardent disciples gone. I wonder about what will follow.

But here I am, with my three siblings, trapped in London in a country under a lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Our situation is hardly unique: Uganda itself has implemented a strict lockdown. Movement has been restricted, and funerals affected. Days after my dad’s funeral President Yoweri Museveni ordered that people be buried where they die, a taboo to even think about in most cultures where someone’s final resting place is of such personal and communal importance.

In Uganda, funerals are sacred and almost non-derogable. Big funerals are symbolic of the departed’s age and status. The integration of Christian doctrine with useful traditional African values has advanced African cultural pride and modern identity. My father, a well-respected Christian in the community, expected a church service burial; a lavish feast. But this is all banned.

In this photo, the author’s father Eliya Ngyendwa is pictured standing, with his wife (Siyadora Nyendwa) seated on left and on his sister-in-law on the right (Edinans Kabagyenyi). (Photo: supplied)

Here in the United Kingdom funerals are private, usually invite-only, and some not lasting more than 45 minutes. Within this globalised Covid-19 era, both cultures are now awkwardly connected by small, private burials.

Before lockdown, news of my father’s death would have spread among the Ugandan community in London like bushfire. Well-wishers and friends would have gathered at my shared flat, cracked open a beer with me and donated money towards the travel and the cost of the funeral.

It was mooted that our dad’s body should be put in a mortuary until the current crisis was over, but the idea was quickly shot down by a family elder who reminded us that “our family cannot put the community on lockdown twice”.

Culturally, work is paused during the mourning time, until the crucial cultural practice of okusibura olufu is performed at the end of the funeral.

We faced a trade-off: uphold the cultural expectation for all children to attend the funeral, or lay my father to rest now so that the whole community could return to “normal” life.

Waiting for months would have tested a hard-wired tradition unnecessarily. We quickly agreed the burial should go ahead three days later, without all children present.

Some relatives had to get permits to travel to Ishaka from Kampala, a five-hour journey. Private and public transport is banned by the state. A permit to travel has effectively translated into a permit to mourn.

There had been arguments questioning the one-size-fits-all approach. When I called my mum, neighbours had been allowed to offer their condolences, forming a long line with each standing two metres apart. But the atmosphere was subdued and strange. There was no fireplace where people would normally gather and chat, reminisce and sing hymns. Centuries-old customs had come to a halt.

Laid to rest: It was not possible for Eric Mugaju to attend his father’s funeral in person (photo: supplied)

Under lockdown, the government allows only 10 people at funerals yet 13 people live permanently at my parent’s compound. Twenty people were allowed after a police inspection.

A virtual funeral on Zoom had been scheduled for midday in Uganda  — 10am UK time. But officials insisted that the funeral start at 9am in Ishaka. I changed the time, causing waves of shock and disbelief: a morning funeral is unheard of in Uganda.

As we go live, instead of embracing, people are scattered and apart, barely interacting. The only sound we can hear piercing through the awkward silence is a rooster’s screeching cock-a-doodle-doo. After a 30-minute hiatus, the funeral starts. Scattered mourners start singing in unison. Only a limited number of speeches are allowed; the mood is sombre.

As the host, I can see Zoom participants’ close-up displays of muted emotion, while the mourners at the funeral appear distant. Cultural norms surrounding death and burial have been seriously shaken by Covid-19.

It is a strange experience to say the least, and even later days later it still won’t feel totally real.

Eventually, this pandemic will end. No one knows when. Though my dad did not die from Covid-19, he died in a peculiar new world order. Words and phrases such as social distancing command us, though we have no direct translation in my language.

Technology has never shown such importance to uniting the world, it has quickly adapted to cultural practices and is utilised to retain certain elements of customs.

We face unprecedented restrictions on movement and family life. Now, laying the dead to rest in dignity and celebration is seen as a luxury, rather than a right.

As the last shovel of soil begins to form a mound on my dad’s grave, I feel that I have lost more than him. Part of our culture has gone with him, forever.

This story first appeared in The Continent, the new weekly pan-African publication designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here

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