Last Thursday, I went to the first village funeral I’ve attended in Zambia. The deceased was a three-year-old boy, the grandson of a Lutheran Pastor and the son of one of our Nsenga translator applicants. I drove out to the village with one of the other Lutheran missionaries and three pastor friends. (Misolo village is about 38 km from Petauke town.)
When we arrived, there were hundreds of people sitting around the parsonage (which was the “funeral house”) and the nearby church. Many of them had been there all night. We were ushered into the sitting room of the parsonage, where the coffin was laid out. When there is a funeral, all the furniture is taken out of the house and everyone sits on the floor. So, we paid our condolences and we sat, quietly just being there.
Eventually the choir started singing, and the ladies from the congregation filed into the sitting room as well. This was a cue for us to go over to the church and await the start of the funeral.
While we were waiting for everyone to gather, we paid our respects to the pastor whose home it was, and whose grandson had passed away. He was very ill with malaria, and was lying on a mat in the sacristy of the church so he could see and participate in the service but still have privacy.
Then we waited in front of the church. The ladies, the choir, and the family members all processed from the house to the church. Then everybody else filed in. Two of the pastors who had ridden with me were presiding at the service. One greeted the congregation and gave a blessing. We sang a few hymns. I offered to share my Chewa hymnal with the other missionary, but he told me he unfortunately knew the funeral hymns all too well.
Pastor Shamwanga read the passage from Mark about “Let the little children come to me.” He then spoke briefly about the sure and certain promises that God makes to us in baptism, and how his great love extends especially to little children. Then Pastor Njobvu preached a message about how death is a warning to us that sin is a destructive force in our lives, but that even as God gives the warning, he also provides the answer: Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and promises that we will someday rise as well. I didn’t follow all of the sermon, since it was in pure Nsenga, but I caught enough to hear the comfort in Pastor’s words.
After the service we all walked to the burial site. It was about a mile down a very rough road. About halfway there it started raining. Someone gave me and the pastors umbrellas, but honestly the wind was blowing so much they didn’t help much. At the gravesite we Americans stood by the two Zambian pastors, who, in their soaking black robes, led the congregation in a few short prayers. There was no formality to lowering the coffin into the grave – it was just put in directly by the people who had carried it. The church ladies sang a song. The men smashed a sleeping mat with a hoe and put it over the coffin. Pastor tossed in the first handful of dirt, and then the men all shared the honor of filling in the grave. Each man put in about 5 shovels full, then passed his tool to the next man. We were all soaked to the skin.
The walk home was long. The road had flooded, and in some parts the rushing rainwater was over our ankles. I did my best to hold my umbrella over Pastor Njobvu, while I asked him questions about his sermon.
When we got back to the church, we all tried to dry off as best we could. Many people were seen wringing water out of their socks. The pastors I had driven excused themselves, so we didn’t stay for the meal. The rain made the drive back to Petauke tricky, but thanks to our 4WD we didn’t get stuck.
Funerals like this one happen every day here – in fact, between Petauke and Misolo we passed four other funeral gatherings. There is much sadness here, and much need for the saving comfort of Jesus Christ.
Posted to the wall of the church in Misolo is a hand-drawn picture of Jesus with a quotation from Matthew 11 in Chewa. Translated, it reads, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” There are many Nsenga people with many heavy burdens, and Jesus is waiting to take all of those burdens, and exchange them for rest to their souls.
See more pictures from the funeral on Facebook, even if you don’t have an account: