They're digging the hole for Pere Erasme's body right now. The hole is about 100 meters away from the house, and if he had been in Belgium or Nairobi--anywhere but here--there'd be no need for a hole in the first place. The funeral starts in 25 minutes.
Erasme was in and out of the hospital for a few months with a liver problem. The Doctor said that someone poisoned him. I'm not sure why anyone would want to poison someone, let alone a Priest who runs a center for orphaned children in Kinshasa. Yesterday, Pere Benjamin came from Mulo to visit his friend.
-How is he progressing? I ask when he returns.
-He's not, he says with a look that makes me want to jump out of my skin to hug him.
-He's pretty sick. I think he's going to die.
That doesn't seem possible to me, so easily like that. I think he must be exaggerating.
-I don't understand, why don't they send him to Belgium? Or anywhere but here?
When Kahambu was in the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital in Kitatumba the only difference between Intensive care and the other rooms with metal cots was the sign above the door that said Soins Intensif. It's hard to imagine that Erasme has anything more than an IV and some antibiotics.
-He's too sick to travel at this point.
-He'll get better, I say. Don't worry.
Pere Benjamin leaves with a crestfallen look on his face and a truck full of young Crosiers. Within the hour one of the cooks knocks on my door to tell me definitively that Pere Erasme is dead. No questions asked, no leeway to argue. The following few hours are an influx of Crosiers and friends, all with heavy faces and a lot to do. The funeral must be held tomorrow so the body does not begin to decay. A coffin must be found, enough food for about 200 people must be prepared and somebody has to track down the Archbishop and let him know that a vessel of the Church has joined his God.
I stay at the house, as out of the way as possible. I don't know the traditions well, I didn't know the Priest at all and I'm not even sure if it's okay to hug Frere Maurice when he stands in front of me on the brink of tears and tells me not to be afraid. What do you say after I'm sorry? I don't say anything. I bow my head to the empty space and walk away.
In the morning, the Church is filled. All of the Priests from the surrounding areas have come and someone was able to bring in the Archbishop. There are at least 40 of them. The solidarity of their mourning moves me first. They are a beautiful sight, filing into the Church, lining the walls with white robes and purple sashes with the voices of the choir filling the spaces in between. The purple sash Erasme would be wearing hangs on a wreath above the coffin.
This is the third funeral I've been to in my life, and my second in Congo. That's not including my personal good bye to Kahambu; her family was too poor to arrange a funeral in a Church, and I felt it best to stay away from the procession they had in the village. That's not including the two students in Butembo, the several people killed in cross-fire just outside of Butembo a few days ago, the girls on the edges of that cross-fire who were killed for a soldier's brief sexual release. There is too much death in this country. It's not supposed to be this normal. It's not supposed to be standing this close all the time.
The funeral itself takes 3 hours. I wonder about the necessity of so much fuss as the Archbishop goes through the extensive motions of release around the body for the soul. What's the point, when nothing can be done to change things once someone has already died? The smiling face of Erasme in the photo behind the coffin answers my question: because I matter. Because a human life is devastatingly important.
His face in the photo is round and smiling only slightly, as if he was told to keep a straight face and was fighting off laughter. When the Archbishop finishes his sermon and the many rituals of acknowledgment, respect and release, a young girl goes up to the podium. Her voice trembles as she speaks in Swahili but she doesn't cry. A woman three rows in front of me starts sobbing quietly. I understand the words, "my brother and my friend." And finally, "you are sleeping."
The young Crosiers crowd around the coffin and carry it out of the Church. Everyone leaves through the various doors to watch the coffin drive by in a Crosier truck, and the follow the truck towards the hole that should have never been dug in the first place. There is silence, whimpering and full on grieving in the crowd. It's impossible not to cry when so many people are hurting. As we walk down the road, a thick stream of humanity, the people going about their business on the sides stop and watch our singing stream flow by. Even the reckless camion trucks that are normally like large angry women forcing their way through a crowd wait silently on the side of the road.
We arrive at the hole in the ground, where his family weeps as the choir sings and the young Crosiers lower his coffin into the ground. I stay on the fringes of the crowd. Beyond his humanity he isn't my loved one to weep for. I haven't earned that right by giving him pieces of myself, knowing he'll take them with him when he goes.
The Crosiers are all wearing scarlet bandannas tied around their necks; scarlet is the color of death in Congo. When they begin covering the coffin, death rings out its finality in the sound of dirt landing heavily on wood.