Wagas, Waakas. Funerary sculptures of the Konso people

Caring For The Dead

“Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory. Wakes allow those among the living to mourn the passing of the dead through ritual; they are the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the deceased from death to burial and the accompanying drinking, feasting, and other observances; a watching practiced as a religious observance” — Christina Sharpe

My grandfather’s funeral is my earliest and most vivid childhood memory. Me and my family regularly went to visit him while he was on his sickbed days before his death. Those visits sit in my mind peripheral to the clear memory of the day when his lifeless body was inside of an embroidered coffin. The coffin sat in the middle of a large muddy colored tent right in front of his house. The tent rose high above the 4 shanti houses that surrounded it and took up all the space in the small perimeter of the compound fenced by discarded metals and old galvanized tin roofs. Throughout the day hundreds of men and women mostly dressed in black or covered in netela came and went. These men and women announced their entrance in cries full of agony. They wailed in sorrowful laments, recalling times spent with my grandpa or wishing that they had been the ones in the coffin instead — a wish which at once sounded pitiful and envious of the dead and gone. As it is customary with traditional Ethiopian funerals, nothing was asked of me and my family except to grieve and care for ourselves in the wake of the dead. The making of the food, the preparation for the burial, the hosting of guests etc all fell under the care of our friends and neighbors.

In In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe asks her readers to consider what it would entail to give care to the Black dead and dying. In what she calls Wake Work Sharpe suggests that the Black dead and dying require “hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to [their] needs” as a way, and in order to, survive in the flesh in an anti Black world situated by/with our death. In a world where death is ubiquitous, mourning the dead becomes normative and serves as a form of care. Thinking with Dagmawi Woubshet’s proposition of “mourning = survival” and David Eng’s and David Kazanjian’s theorization of loss/mourning as “productive rather than pathological, abundant rather than lacking, social rather than solipsistic, militant rather than lacking,” I use one of Christina Sharpe’s iteration of Care in her book in place of the term mourning — i.e “care for the dead/dying” — throughout this post. The term mourning as it is generally used synonymously with grief and based in temporal frame understates the ubiquitous and atemporal sense of loss Black people across the globe endure. So I borrow the phrase “tend [give care] to the Black dead/dying” from Sharpe to encapsulate the various processes of daily Ethiopian “mournings” of the dead/dying.

I lived in Addis Ababa until the age of 12, death and funerals were part and parcel of our everyday lives there. Our lives revolved around the dead/dying and the care we gave to the dead/dying. Almost everyday at the crack of dawn a man would walk around our sefer* blowing a brass horn to announce yet another death from the area — an announcement which for the living served as an alarm clock and the start of our day… By noon a large muddy colored tent would be erected in front of the dead’s house notifying everyone where to go to give care… By evening the living would grow accustomed to the wailing of the care givers, their cries, like the songs of the birds, no longer registering in people’s minds unless one was attentively listening to it… Every month before church either I or my brother — or the both of us — would be sent to the edir bett* (burial/death society house) with a hand full of cash from my momma. She would warn us that the edir money better end up in the rightful hands, lest she find out we spent the money on something else then it would be our deaths and there won’t be any money to cover the costs for our funerals… Coffin shops are customary sights in Addis Ababa. It’s impossible to ignore those colorful coffins stacked high inside and outside the shop, some of them anchored at an angle and made to stand straight gave an eerie feeling for anyone not accustomed to their sight. Seeing those shops my dad always joked that in Ethiopia we know how to take better care of the dead than we do the living. A particular coffin shop I remember was located right outside the gates of Tikur Ambesa hospital where my parents worked. The sick and dying entering or waiting outside the hospital gates are made to confront the fact of the imminent/immanent death looming in and around the hospital’s surroundings… Death is a fact of life, it usually marks the end of things. But for me and the people I grew up with death precedes, engulfs and exceeds our time here on earth. Death is quotidian and could not be dis-imbricated from our everyday lives. This is true for all Black people across the globe living in gratuitous violence that is the afterlife of slavery and colonialism. We live in what Karla Holloway calls a “Black death” or what Christina Sharpe calls a life of “imminent/immanent death.” Knowing death to be ubiquitous, we spend our days trying to ease the hurt and pain of loss. Death and the care we give to the dead/dying are formative elements of our everyday lives; our music, our literature, how we communicate with and to each other etc are all informed by death somehow…

— In the process of writing this post I initially wanted to follow in the footsteps of Du Bois, Karla Holloway, Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman and include the stories of my brother, close friends, and neighbors who I grew up with — and whose deaths I haven’t recovered from — as a way of locating an intimate story into the larger cultural narrative of death and care addressed here. As much as I know and believe writing to be an instrumental aspect of my recovery from various traumas, I didn’t/couldn’t find any courage in me to revisit their lives, start to care for their deaths in such manner. & In context of the topic at hand I can understand how my reluctance/incapability to recover their deaths publicly in writing can undermine the point I’m trying to make — that the care we give to the dead is a form of survival.

The inclusion of my grandfather’s funeral is my attempt to situate myself and the people close to me in the larger cultural narrative of death and care. In doing so I wanted to highlight the imminent/immanent death surrounding my life and the people I grew up with. Yet I found myself basically in an existential crisis just thinking about certain deaths. My ability/inability to include one death from another has been a revealing fact for me; (I can pin point whose death I have dealt with and whose death I still need to recover from.. I’ve figured out whose death has prevented/prevents me from going back to Addis.. I’ve figured out how my refusal to accept certain deaths is inextricably tied with my transmigration and my subconscious attempt to preserve a certain picture of what/who is “home”.. I question whether return is possible.. and many.. many things) It is my hope that as I try to think/work/live through their deaths that my inability to care for them and myself at this moment in my life doesn’t undermine the point being made in this post. So I try instead, rather easily for me, to highlight imminent/immanent death and how the care we give to the dead/dying are instrumental aspects of our lives through my reading of the following Ethiopian writers and their respective work —

In what is known as The Red Terror, the Derg, a military junta that toppled the long standing monarch in 1974, executed thousands of dissidents and discarded their bodies in the streets in order to discourage opposition groups and terrorize the commoners. Families and friends, in addition to paying fines for the bullets used to kill their loved ones, were not allowed to pick up the bodies from the street and give them proper care or burial. Maaza Mengiste’s novel Beneath The Lion’s Gaze is set just prior and after the 1974 revolution when The Red Terror was at it’s peak. Maaza Mengiste grew up amidst the revolution and moved to the u.s because of the bloodshed that ensued. Her characters in Beneath The Lion’s Gaze, reflecting the everyday lives of Ethiopians at the time, know death deeply and intimately. Their lives are intertwined and are informed by death and the care given — or the care refused — to the dead/dying. At one point in the book a soldier tells Dawit that there’s “no funerals for the enemy. Let the hyenas eat [the discarded body].” Death, the dead body, and the denial of proper care for the dead all become an instrument of a political warfare on a people already ravaged by violence of war and famine. For a people denied an instrumental aspect of their lives — caring for the dead/dying — the various desperate and sometimes suicidal acts of care given to the dead/dying by commoners become the most heroic acts of resistance.

Hailu, the doctor appointed to care for a patient tortured to the point of death by soldiers, ends the agonizing pain of his patient by killing her as an act of care and defiance. In brave act of resistance and care Dawit, Sara and Melaku pick up the discarded bodies in the dead of night so their loved ones could give them proper burial. Mengiste makes acts of care like these the axis of her book, reshaping the narrative that resistance = guerrilla or political warfare. By including these fictional accounts of care given for the dead/dying, Mengiste transforms the real historical narrative of death and the dead as instruments of terror into a healing practice of resistance for her characters and the readers at large.

Mengiste also uses death/the impending death of her characters and how other characters respond to these deaths/impending deaths to indicate the state of the nation and it’s people’s varied responses. We are introduced to Selam — the mother of the family this book revolves around and whose name in English translates to Peace — while she is in her sickbed as the 3000 year old monarch is violently brought to an end outside of the hospital bed she’s dying in. The dying mother here represents the dying monarch. (Although, one can be critical of whether peace presided over the country prior to the revolution) The ideological or/and indifferent ways her two sons care for Selam as she is dying/dead stand to represent the ways the people respond to the ends of the old nation. Her husband Hailu’s — whose name translates to “his power” and is similarly constructed to be likened with Haile, the emperor’s first name — unwillingness to fulfill Selam’s last wishes represents the emperors’ stubborn response to the demands that were being made prior to the revolution… The family dynamic as the backdrop context for the nation becomes more apparent when Selam’s 7 year old granddaughter Tizita falls sick in the upcoming days and is also bedridden. Once again, Tizita’s impending death and the care she receives stand to represent the new youthful nation that is stricken with pathological terror and the people’s varying response to it respectively. Read closely, each character’s name stand to represent something. Tizita’s name can be equated to the traditional secular Ethiopian music categorized Tizita in which singers usually lament about loss or nostalgic memory, or both. Mengiste uses the young Tizita and her sickness to represent a new nation inundated by death/dead bodies in which people grieved over lost hope of a revolution and dreamt of better days passed.

Maaza Mengiste is one of the many writers who is part of a generation known as ye Derg lijoch (the Derg’s children). Death/the dying and the care — or lack thereof — people give to the dead and dying is the foundation of Mingiste’s work. This work of literature serves to highlight the imminence/immanence of death and the care Ethiopians give to the dead/dying as a weapon of survival. The book in itself in addressing imminent/immanent death and highlighting the care given to the dead/dying, just like the ones highlighted below, serve as an intellectual care of its own.

Dagmawi Woubshet is yet another writer christened as ye Derg lij whose work is greatly influenced by and is about the dead/dying and the care people give to the dead/dying. He starts off his book The Calendar Of Loss: Race Sexuality and Mourning In The Early Era of AIDS with this quote: “For the living, there is no constituency as formative as the dead — a fact I learned growing up in 1980s Ethiopia, where loss governed time and temperament.” Woubshet relies on his childhood in Ethiopia, “where loss governed time and temperament,” as one of his influences to help him contextualize the queer community’s care-ful response to the death that engulfed their community as the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s was ignored by the government of the u.s. and by the non-queer community of the nation at large. In the last chapter of The Calendar of Loss titled “Epistles to the dead” Woubshet draws from written letters of Ethiopian children whose parents died with HIV/AIDS to highlight the imminent/immanent death that these particular children deal with and how they weaponize caring for the dead to help them cope with loss. At nine years old, Salamawit Alemu is the first and youngest orphan girl child whose epistle Woubshet presents and engages with. She concludes her epistle like this: “But now both you and my father are far from me and I am far from you. Who comes close to me? Separated from my side before I was full of your love separated from me my mother. Your child Salamawit Alemu.” A photocopy version of Salamawit’s original written epistle appears just after Woubshet’s translation of it into English. On the original epistle, Salamawit’s last words quoted above diverge from the initial letter form she begins with and is instead written in a form of a poem and appear in large characters highlighting the immense sense of loss that she feels in writing those particular words… In his analysis of these epistles Woubshet does an incredible job of showing how these children inundated by death/dying throughout their lives constantly blur the lines between the living and the dead. Woubshet notes how Salamawit and the other children’s use of the generic Amharic term “separation” that is used in place of the word “death” throughout their epistle “[troubles] the fixed distinction between the living and the dead.” At just 9 years old Salamwit looses both of her parents and is one of the 900,000+ Ethiopian children orphaned by the lack of care given to HIV/AIDS positive patients in Ethiopia. People openly living with HIV/AIDS often times are denied proper and traditional care in dying and in death. Stigmatized out of the respective edir (death/burial society) they are part of, they are denied a traditional Ethiopian funeral. Like the dissidents The Derg killed and denied proper care for, people who live with HIV/AIDS are denied to participate in giving care to the dead and are refused the rightful care they deserve once they die. These children found a way to expresses their grief in writing, in lieu of the traditional public care they are refused in the wake of their parents’ death. In writing those epistles they begin to honor and give care to a people shamed in death, and in doing so they also begin the process of healing from their parents’ loss.

Dinaw Mengistu, yet another ye derg lij writer born in the wake of the revolution, states in an interview that all three of his novels are closely related in that they all try to address a sense of loss: “What is it like to lose the things that you value most in your life, your family, your country, your friends?” In The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears there is a point in the book when the protagonist Sepha Stephanos attends his cousin’s wedding in DC. While at his cousin’s wedding, another newlywed Ethiopian couple come into the picture only for the reader to find out in the next 4 lines or so that the groom dies in the middle of his reception. His inclusion of this brief encounter with the nameless groom and his unknown cause of death may seem unnecessary and random to the reader. But yet again we see how death and the dying become part of the everyday lives of Ethiopians even on a day when the start of new life is supposed to be celebrated; even when, and perhaps especially when, one finds themselves away from the mainland and in a different country. This conflation of death/funerals with weddings is popular among Ethiopian artists and story tellers. In the prologue of a famous comedy skit by Limenh Tadesse & Alebachew Teka, where Limenh plays a grieving widow returning from burying her husband, a comedian tells the story of a young man grieving his uncle’s death. This young man while grieving for his uncle suddenly finds himself in a wedding and confuses the celebratory singing of the wedding to his initial lamentation for the dead. Dinaw Mengistu drawing from stories like this includes that peculiar but culturally relevant scene in his novel to highlight the ubiquitousness of death. Stephanos and the people attending his cousin’s wedding “shook [their] heads, mumbled the same prayers [they] had used for their fathers and friends” — once again noting the imminent/immanent death that engulfed their lives. In conclusion to this scene Stephanos notes that “if there was anything we [Ethiopians] all knew how to do, it was pay our respects to the dead.” Mengistu here uses “pay our respects to the dead” instead of “mourn the dead.” One can equate those words to mean “give care to the dead” — in the way that I’ve used that term to mean the act of quotidian “mourning” of the dead/dying throughout this post.

Death/dying and the care given to the dead/dying is a formative element of the way people live in Ethiopia, and it follows us once we’ve transmigrated from the mainland. It determines the way we know each other, it determines how we do the arts, and it determines how we live our daily lives. Christina Sharpe’s book In The Wake has been the bases of my thinking throughout this post and my everyday life for the past four months or so. So I want to reiterate a quote of a migrant survivor that appear in the book where they state that they liked it “when people care. It’s all we have.” In a world where Black death is normative and the imminence/immanence of death blurs the line between the dead and the living, the hard physical, emotional, and intellectual work of care that Sharpe demands of us and that are highlighted in this essay are instrumental in helping us ease the inescapable reality of loss.

Sefer* — neighborhood

Edir bett * — edir is a death/burial society that helps with funerals, burial, food making and such.. as the family of the dead isn’t allowed to do anything.. Bett means house.

The edir in my sefer usually conducted a weekly meeting to talk about the dead and the finances needed to cover their transition. Edir bett is where they met. An example of the immanence/imminence of death and the collective care that people are required to participate in… Aster Aweke in her song “Andd Adergen,” a rather naive song that calls for the unity of Ethiopian peoples, references to the edir bett as the most unifying and egalitarian aspect of our culture where people regardless of nationality and religion come as one to give care to the dead.

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