As much as we know this, death is not something we can prepare for. It happens when it happens. I cannot say I have faced my fear of it yet and maybe I never will. Having attended quite a number of burials, you would think the idea of death would have become familiar to an extent but I doubt that is something we are built to do.
My first memory of death was after we lost my great grandmother and I believe I was either 8 or 9 years old. All I remember is my mother mentioning that she had passed on and a week later she was buried. I did not attend the burial I guess since I was young. As much as I did not attend the burial, I got to skip school and stay home with my sister and cousins. Memories of a convoy of vehicles filled with family members leaving the church where the funeral service was held. Aunts and uncles I didn’t know existed. A huge number of the extended family members were present and trust me when I say they were many.
Fast forward to 11 year old me.
Lucy had been my best friend since we were around 8. I can’t tell how that was decided but I believe it was by the virtue that we used to walk home together from school during lunch and also after school. We had been in the same class since class one. And maybe the fact that she was a neighbor to my favorite cousin and I spent a lot of time there. It was always the three of us. Lucy, Regina and I. I am not sure if the friendship between the two was because they belonged to the same extended family or because they were super close neighbors or maybe they just liked each other. We always looked out for each other. We would fight at times but we would find a way to get over it.
The first time I viewed a body was after Lucy’s mum died. Mama Lucy’s death was a peculiar one. It wasn’t the kind of death you sort of prepare for. Zero signs. Mama Lucy wasn’t sick. If anything, she was in perfect health. She had given birth to her last born, Beatrice, around 5 months before. She was very active, friendly and always in a jovial mood. She hummed a lot as she went about her business.
We were in class when Lucy’s elder brother requested to have a word with our teacher. Mrs. Karanja walked out with him, had a brief conversation then walked back into class. We were all staring at Lucy as if she knew what was going on. Mrs. Karanja asked her to pack her bag and leave with her brother. After they left, she notified us that Lucy had just lost her mum and we would be expected to contribute as a class. After school, Regina and I went straight to Lucy’s place. Regina’s mum was there and she asked us to seat with Lucy away from the crowd that had gathered in their house.
Mama Lucy had been cleaning clothes just outside her door when Beatrice woke up and started crying. She had walked into the house, picked up Beatrice and walked back outside to breastfeed her while seated on the veranda. She passed away right there. Just like that. The first person to notice was a neighbor who heard Beatrice’s continuous crying and decided to check it out. Mama Lucy’s lifeless body was leaning on the wall with Beatrice on her lap. Crying her lungs out. Maybe she noticed or felt something. I cannot remember if anyone explained to us what the cause of death was but a lot of the women around kept saying it had been her time to go.
I spent most of the following at my aunt’s house as that made sure I was near Lucy at all times. When the day of the burial came, I was one of the students who represented our class as well as the school. We went to City Mortuary early that morning and waited as they ran around sorting things out. We bought wreaths and handkerchiefs. People were dressed in black with most of them crying. It was a cold morning.
When it was time to view the body, I queued with everyone and took my turn. That image stuck with me for months and I had a hard time sleeping. I will not describe it here but it was disturbing. It distorted the image I had of Lucy’s mum. I no longer remembered her humming, jovial or laughing. Anytime I would think of her that was the image in my head. That is the image I have as I write this.
A year later, we lost my cousin to Leukemia at a young age. Wambo. I honestly can’t remember much about her right now. She was young and had been sick most of her life. But that image, that image was it for me. When I saw her lying in that casket looking very different from the person I knew. What being sick had done to her, I called it quits. That was the moment I decide I would never view a body ever again. That was the last body I viewed.
I have been to other burials after that and I never view the body. I decided I would like to remember these people as they were when they were alive. This was because I noticed that the moment I saw them lying there lifeless, that was all I would remember anytime I would think of them. I would see them in my dreams and that was too much to handle. I want to remember their laughter. Their smiles. The things that brought them joy. I am okay with that.