August 8, 2011

Karenzo Audace's interment, August 6, 2011

The burial of Karenzo Audace was done according to Burundian traditions, the controlling one of which is that the community (as opposed to cemetery employees) lays the deceased to rest.

When everyone in the vehicle procession had arrived at the cemetery, the wooden casket was carried under the usual green tent.  The leader said a few words, translated by an interpreter for those of us who didn't know the language (I'm not sure of the language but learned online that the three most often used in Burundi are Rundi, French, and Swahili.)  There was a song or two as well as a few words about Mr. Audace.  (Bear in mind that this service followed a two-hour service at the Pentecostal church.)  We were then told that the rules of their culture would be followed, beginning with the carrying of the coffin down a small incline to the grave.  Once the coffin was set down, it became evident that different straps were needed for lowering the coffin into the grave, causing a delay of twenty minutes or so. A few hymns/burial songs were sung.  A yellow butterfly flew past me.  A slight breeze was enough to keep us cool (the temperature remained in the low 80s).

Mr. Audace's wife, a tiny woman dressed in black, stood through the interment with her arms wrapped around and older woman whose black garments covered her entire body, including her face.  (I don't know if the term chador is correct in this instance; the family is Christian rather than Muslim.)  The two small girls were dressed alike:  dresses with black straps, a white ruched organza bodice that descended almost to the knees, and a white knife-pleated skirt that ended near their ankles.  The older daughter wore in her hair a burgundy bow the same color as the roses and ribbons on the standing wreath. The younger daughter wore a black bow in her hair.  The little boy, toddler size, wore a suit and leaned into the chest of the man holding him.

After a bit of commotion around the cemetery truck, the long straps were delivered.  The crowd surrounding the grave was six or seven deep, more in some places.  I was in the very back, our acquaintance with Mr. Audace having been quite short and my intention being only to show my respect, so I didn't see the casket slide into the grave.  But I did hear the leader say that the job of burying belonged to everyone.  There were four shovels, two quite short, two long. His widow shoveled the first dirt onto the coffin.

Way into the shoveling, I thought it would all be done before I had a chance to assist. Then I shook myself and thought, "No, it isn't true.  There's plenty of dirt for everyone."  A while later, I handed my car keys to a man standing slightly behind me on my left, stepped forward and offered my hands for a shovel.  I scooped earth and dumped it into the grave.  After the first spade-full, someone behind me offered to help.

"Thank you but no," I said.  "I need to do this myself." 

I didn't really mean myself; I meant myself and Michael, whose job responsibilities prevented him from being there to pay his condolences.

I lifted and dumped the shovel five times before someone took it from me and went to work at about ten times the speed I'd managed. Everybody paced each other;when one of the men slowed down, another stepped next to him and relieved him of the shovel.  A few songs were sung, but otherwise the ritual proceeded in virtual silence, each of us absorbed in watching the task.

It takes a long time to fill a grave, even with more than a hundred people -- maybe more than two hundred --  shoveling.  The earth had been piled on two mammoth plywood sheets when the grave was dug (I'm certain that digging was done by the community).  None was left behind on those sheets; it all ended back on the grave.  The surface was rounded, as you'd expect, and I watched two men chop at clumps of dirt with shovels while another man, wearing a golf shirt and long shorts and tennis shoes, was on his hands and knees smoothing, smoothing the dirt with the palms of his hands.

It felt like love and honor, that shoveling and chopping and smoothing.  Holy moments -- or, more accurately, holy hour or hour and a half.  And all the while, everyone stayed.

I studied the crowd from time to time.  The Burundi women wore beautiful, brightly colored batik dresses; many had ornate headwraps, which someone told me later indicated who was who (immediate family, siblings, cousins, etc.).  The men's clothing ranged from formal black suits to T-shirts and shorts.  It struck me that some people there were certainly plain-clothes county police officers or state or FBI officers  -- Mr. Audace's death was, after all, a murder -- but I lacked the skills to identify them.  The only real sign I saw was a Louisville Metro Police Department police car in a cemetery cul de sac as I drove away.

The crowd was predominantly black / African American.  A number of Caucasians attended the church service, but I only counted four, including myself, at the grave: a tall man, a blonde woman, and a third person I remember counting but whose appearance has left me.  He was probably undercover police of some variety; who else could manage to be that nondescript?

So.  All the dirt was replaced, and the grave was hand-smoothed.  A few words were said -- regret for the passing, recognition that this is not the first Burundian to be murdered without provocation in Louisville, a call for justice.  Then the flowers were placed on the grave. Precision was involved in the placement, but of course I don't know the significance of the placements.

I do know that one of the leaders held up a bouquet of flowers in his right hand and a silver pen in his left hand.  He said something like, "Karenzo was above all a teacher. The first thing he did was learn English, and then he taught it to everyone else, for no cost. This pen represents his life as a teacher. It also represents his children's right to be educated, so that they too can be teachers."  I understood that he was placing a claim on and a demand of the community, and I suspect it was a tacit but binding demand that Karenzo's daughters allowed a full education.  (I base this supposition on a conversation with someone familiar with Burundi, but still I could be totally wrong.)  The leader then placed the silver pen into the soil of the flower arrangement, and there it stayed, like an outer-space flower come to earth to live with the ones nature provided.

The ceremony, the ritual, the being allowed to share in the cultural traditions of the fine Audace family was a privilege. Traditional Burundi religions, according to wikipedia or the CIA site or somewhere I wandered on the internet, do not support a belief in an afterlife.  Rather, they believe the dead remain present and active in the here and now.  In that case, Mr. Audace is blessing and watching over his family, his community, this city, and this country, which he loved deeply; and we are all the better for it.


Lisa Creech Bledsoe said...

What an astonishing image. Or rather, series of images: everyone shoveling and chopping, the silver pen, the children. I feel somehow greater than I was before I read what you have shared here. Also strangely sad, about the murder of someone I never even knew...

Mary Jo said...

I'm glad I was able to convey it that clearly. Greater than I was before and strangely sad; that's how I felt being there.