“We must go to the grave,” directed the priest to the young, colored assistant. He picked his face up from its resting position, stood up and followed the priest into the back of the church. Their white garments flapped lightly as they descended into the shadow of the hallway.
The procession was on schedule: visiting hours had taken place, and the hearse was on its way to the church. An afternoon sun bore down on the mass progressing towards the center. Seeing the approaching scene, the kids who were trying to wrestle for a last scrap of donated food soon dispersed to other streets or the adjacent field to play soccer. A momentary quiet had fallen on the grounds.
The rusty gate creaked open to let in the arriving crowd and dusty, white vehicle. With the trunk opening, people awkwardly bulged and converged to make room. Eventually, most started heading into the church foyer and then to their respective seats. Whispers of hot conversation escaped the entrance and wafted over the haze of now settling dust.
Although that morning I had plans to start my photography project on a soccer, educational program in the Manenberg township, I found myself engaged with a setting much less light. Auntie Susie, one of the older volunteers at the program, had plans to go the funeral of a man whose mother she was well acquainted with and invited me to come along. The man had been involved with the program that I was currently working for, and I thought it would be important to find more information about the situation.
Before the priest had to speak to the entering congregation, I got a chance to meet him. He had studied at a Catholic institution in Pretoria for a time. His ability to speak Afrikaans preempted him to be placed in the primarily Afrikaans speaking township of Manenberg. He explained to me some details related to death, saying that Richard, the man who died, had been murdered by his fellow gang members, the so-called Bad Boys. At the age of 14, he had dropped out of school and at some point became integrated within this group. Richard was “a quiet guy” who did not always find time to hang with the gang; the priest also mentioned the possibility some homophobic tensions that could have ostracized from the group. Supposedly, Richard had done something to tick the gang off a little bit (or as Auntie added, he had done something “naughty”) and was murdered in response. Luckily, the man’s sister had seen the guys who had committed the crime and was able to report them to the authorities. He had died at the age of 20.
“All rise,” directed the priest this time to the mostly colored audience. In a mix of interchanged Afrikaans and English, he ebbed the tension in the room with an unfaltering tone in his sermon. “In my interview with the family, I learned that he loved to wash the dishes and the chance to cook dinner for his mother,” the priest debriefed, gazing down to meet the eyes of parents. “He was a little different. But Jesus loves everyone, even for all our differences.” Relinquishing the pulpit for other speakers, the priest requested a couple of people including Richard’s sister to say a couple of words. The dark strands of her hair tied tightly in a bun, she promptly made her way to the front. However, only an echo of feeble whimpers rang throughout the room as the girl pressed up on the microphone. She soon bounded off the alter, hands balled up around her mouth.
And then to the graveyard. Croaking sobs. The priest standing stoically, the rhythm of his words conducting the convulsing crowd. To the hymn of greener pastures, the crane lowered the coffin, submerging into its dusty cavern. “And from dust to dust”.
Two days after, I am still finding it difficult to reflect on the event. It certainly emphasizes many issues within the community including violence, the gangster culture, school dropouts and dealings with sexuality. In terms of its relation to the service organization, it provides an interesting counterpoint to the organization’s proposed alternative to the gangster culture, as one of the volunteers was involved this culture. However, in regard to how I feel, I am still coming to grips with the situation. Hopefully with time, I will know how to assess better what transpired.