A Funeral in Lesotho
Mark Behle – Lesotho
About two weeks ago I attended the funeral of Mr. Masopha, a staunch member of the local church and chairman of the school board.
He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?”, he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” Luke 8:25
Funerals in Lesotho are quite different from those in North America. There can easily be three weeks or more between the date of death and the funeral to allow time for distant relatives to be notified and a family gathering held to work out details. Most funerals are held on a Saturday and last six to eight hours. Some relatives and friends may have already spent the previous night or two at the home of the deceased. One or two tents are erected next to the home and become a telltale sign that someone has passed away. On the day of the funeral people begin gathering at the home around 9am or so. The funeral will end around 4 or 5pm in the afternoon.
The verse about Jesus calming the storm on the sea came to mind during Mr. Masopha’s funeral. We have been having frequent heavy rains recently but the morning of the day of the funeral was mostly sunny. However, knowing the event would be pretty much an all day affair there was plenty of time for the weather to change.
With many of the several hundred mourners gathered under tents, the funeral began around 10am. After an explanation of the cause of death (a heart attack most likely brought on by family difficulties) there was the usual lengthy series of speeches given by various relatives (representatives of the nephews, uncles, in-laws, etc.) as well as friends, neighbors, co-workers, and employers. About two and a half hours into the speeches the clouds were gathering and looking ominous. Soon the sides of the tent were billowing in and out and rain began falling. A strong wind blew rain in on the open side of the tent. Steady streams of water from the numerous holes in the tent caused a reshuffle of seats. Umbrellas were set up to cover the coffin and the speeches were temporarily halted as no one could hear anything.
The wobbly metal tent poles made one wonder how long the tent would stay up. There was plenty of thunder but fortunately not much lightning to be attracted by these poles. Still, I have to admit the thought of a strike wasn’t far from my mind. But no one under the tent panicked and who was I to be the lone soul to run out on a funeral? Besides, we were soon all singing hymns and choruses in a joyous celebration while we waited for the storm to pass. Nearly an hour went by before the storm abated and the funeral could continue.
Jesus’ question, “Where is your faith?”, made me realize there was plenty of it in evidence under the tent. The rather dire-looking circumstances had created a oneness of spirit and fellowship, which often arises in such situations. My worry and concern were soon consumed by this genuine expression of faith in God. It was apparent that nothing would deter us from completing what we had been brought together for that day.
When I have thought about Jesus’ question in the past I have always assumed he meant that the disciples had totally forgotten their faith and left it behind. I’ve been considering it from a slightly different angle since attending the funeral. Something like a, “Where is your faith, on a scale of 1 to 10?” type of question. During this season of Lent it seems like an appropriate question for each of us to consider.
After the storm blew through, the church service part of the funeral began. When that was over we all processed a short distance, trailing behind the coffin, to the gravesite where there was a brief service. After the coffin was lowered into the ground relatives threw in the first fistfuls of dirt and then the shoveling began: first by male relatives and then by any of the men who felt inclined to help. Everyone remains at the grave until the burial is completed. Afterwards we walked back into the family compound and hands were washed (a ritual “must” whether you helped shovel or not) and a big meal was served up by the family to all the mourners. After that you were free to leave.
A person looking back on world events in 2005 might have questions of doubt about God’s presence. Certainly in Lesotho, with huge problems like HIV/AIDS, unemployment and poverty, there are plenty of reasons to make one doubt. Despite these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, many people here remain faithful, knowing who else can they turn to except God.
Jesus’ question, “Where is your faith?”, came to life for me at Mr. Masopha’s funeral. Each of us has to answer it, but we can help one another to strengthen the faith we do have, as I found myself encouraged and uplifted by the faith of others during the storm.
Yours in Christ,
Mark Behle is a missionary with the Lesotho Evangelical Church. He is a Mathematics teacher at Masitise High School, Lesotho.