“Everybody’s saying this is going to be the hottest funeral of the year.” – Manny Tamakloe
In today’s New York Times, reporter Sam Dolnick writes about a ritual that will seem strange for most of the people who pick up this morning’s paper. The piece, “Dance, Laugh, Drink. Save the Date: It’s a Ghanaian Funeral” looks at the different cultural take on death within one of the city’s growing immigrant groups. It examines many things: religion, heritage and traditions. But more than anything what the piece does is ask a question: how can these people be happy in a time like this?
At first read, the quote from Manny Tamakloe seems odd. Funerals aren’t mean to be “hot.” Indeed, they should be somber, quiet, solemn events. This is the accepted way of remembering the dead.
As hard as it is to imagine funeral that is not filled with sadness, it is unimaginable for the Ghanaians in Dolnick’s piece to see why the day of mourning should not include some celebration.
And so this is why the funerals are promoted with palmcards like those seen for nightclub parties and Facebook event pages and even e-vites. Funeral invites are posted in church bulletin boards and flyers are left on the counters of local grocery stores. It explains why the names of family members are listed as “chief mourners” alongside the names of the party hosts, DJs and M.C.s.
Though the sight of photographers printing out keepsake photos from the funeral receptions may seem strange to one New York Times reporter, there is something in this “strangeness” that resonates with many people of color, whether Ghanaian, immigrants or none of the above. It is that there is always enough reason to dance even when loss, indeed death, lingers closer than we’d like.
Growing up in my father’s shop, I developed an internal metronome based on the rhythms of his printing presses and a keen sense of empathy even when I couldn’t quite understand. In our little corner of the Bronx, it seemed people had ran from every edge of the earth only to find that they couldn’t outrun tragedy, loss or pain. I got to watch mothers proofread their sons’ funeral programs, old men correcting the birthdays of the wives they had loved for years and I got to see how in spite of loss, people remained in tact.
Whether it was a Ghanaian family, a Nigerian family, a Guyanese family or a Pakistani one, it seems that when a people have known great loss or great displacement, they become aware an accepting of the possibility of pain. And after that, they choose what they will do next. Some become silent, some weep and some shout.
I think it is quite strange, really. Not that we find moments to smile again or moments to laugh. It’s strange to think that we are all imbued with a resilience that outlives the people, the things and the situations that leave us behind, that we posses even in our darkest moments, a willingness to shout, to be surrounded by others who use their joy to cry. While loss is never something we can be truly ready for, our spirit is meant to stand as strong as tall Ghanaian bouncers outside of a pulsing funeral hall.
Because while it may be quite strange, sometimes we have to dance to remember that it’s also quite beautiful, this life of ours.