IN 2004 I attended a most bizarre funeral ever. It took place in a sleepy tiny English village on the outskirts
of Salisbury in Wiltshire County, United Kingdom.
Guest Column by Miriam Tose Majome
I had taken a temporary live-in care worker job to look after a middle-aged English woman called Sally. Multiple sclerosis and morbid obesity had paralysed her, rendering her wholly dependent on care. Two care assistants were required because her weight could not be managed by one helper. I joined a Zimbabwean woman I called Aunty Rozi who was about my mother’s age.
Sally lived with her father and her husband. Her father Dave was an active man in his 70s. One morning he drove
himself to the local hospital for a routine knee procedure but the uid drainage process went wrong and he caught
He died later that night just like that.
We had made him breakfast before he left as he joked around with us as was his manner. So we were stunned when
Sally’s husband Ron told us the news in the morning. Ron lived in the house but separately, uninvolved with anything in the household.
He barely spoke to anyone, let alone us two care assistants who crowded him out of his own house together with a father in law and an ailing permanently weepy obese wife who sickened him.
He barely went into her room except to talk about medical and household bills. His typical answer to everything
we mastered the courage to ask him was “I don’t work here I just live here!’’ before slamming his door or walking away scowling.
He was annoyed with everything — his life, us, his wife, his father in law — his tiny house. He went to work every morning and returned in the evening with a takeaway supper and locked himself in his room only emerging to make a cup of tea. The morning of his father in law’s death he popped into his wife’s room for a few minutes and le
for work, as usual barely glancing in our direction.
Suddenly here we were, two Shona people in the middle of an English funeral yet we did not know how to mourn English. Aunty Rozi was the matronly Shona type, strong, confident and practical. She sprang into action
immediately taking charge. She ordered that we move all the sitting room furniture outside explaining that the mourners would arrive shortly and could not all that in with the sofas in the way.
Next she instructed me to remove the curtains and when I asked why she said with authority that it is just the done
thing at funerals. I shrugged but did as I was told, groaning under the weight and awkwardness of the heavy drapes.
We huffed and puffed all morning shuffling furniture and curtains.
That done, she said we should start cooking, complaining that there would not be enough to feed the mourners.
She said we just had to make do because no one in this household was going to help us and she did not want to be embarrassed when the mourners came.
We were on our own she said. The only person who could have helped was in the mortuary. This was his funeral.
Sally barely talked to us even at the best of times. She despised us and understandably so because we were an ever
present reminder of her total dependence and wretched existence.
We cooked all the meat in the freezer and every morsel of food in the house trying our best to guess what English
funeral food looked like. We scrapped, cut and chopped all day long then waited, and waited, and waited but no-one
came. No wailing aunts or sombre looking uncles clicking their tongues. No cousins, no friends, no one. Not even
Only Ron came at his usual time. He was horrified to be greeted by his sofas arranged outside. What on earth
are these two bloomin cretins doing, he wondered to himself. The look on his face as he stepped inside a house with out curtains was priceless. In that moment nothing Aunty Rozi said about space for the coffin or food for the
mourners sounded sensible.
But what about the curtains!? He pleaded. Aunty Rozi’s Mabvuku English failed her horribly in her moment of
greatest need, when she needed it to talk to a bonafide Englishman. So she could only grin sheepishly. I was speechless because it suddenly all looked ridiculous, him standing crimson faced in the middle of an empty house.
Resigned and exhausted at the bizarre ways of African women, he walked into his room shoulders sagged. He never came out that evening, not even for his cup of tea.
Night fell and clearly there were not going to be going to any mourners coming to this funeral. We spent the night
shuffling the furniture back inside but the food! Oh that food. There was so much of it. We packed and froze whatever we could and threw the rest away when we ran out of packing material.
The house was deathly quiet — there were no drums beating, no women singing and dancing inside. No coffin sat stately in its pride of place by the fireplace, no men milled around outside by the fireside, no people spilled incessantly onto the yard all night long. No wailing women dived theatrically at the widow’s feet. the mark of a successful Shona funeral is one where awestruck aunts speak proudly for days about the number of people who attended the funeral. But this was not a Shona funeral.
For more than a week, only Sally’s lonely sobs could be heard occasionally from her room. Condolence phone
calls came through intermittently on the land line. Vans delivered bouquets of flowers but no one came. Ron sat
in his room. Sally wept alone in hers.
Aunty Rozi and myself, a pair of migrant workers were just there but completely lost. Dave had been our friend
— our only friend.
Dave was buried almost two weeks later after a short requiem mass. Aunty Rozi, Sally, myself and a handful of other people were at this strange funeral. Altogether we could not have been more than 10. Ron had gone to work as usual.
I wonder if this is how COVID-19 is changing the culture of how we will grieve for our dead. Maybe this is
our new normal?