n Ethiopia, where I grew up, funerals last three days. I hated going to these liksous. In the Amhara culture, grief is violent and sensory, loud and raw.
As the local missionaries, my parents were usually asked to attend the last tribute to the dead. As we entered the mourners’ houses, I would duck behind my mother’s legs, terrified by what I heard and saw—relatives wailing at the top of their lungs, rocking back and forth, eyes rolled back in their heads; the bereaved mother or new widow, her head shaven clean to the scalp, beating her chest with both fists; the women suddenly raking their nails down their cheeks, gouging rivets of blood that mingled with their tears.
At night, between wailing sessions, the families heaped mattresses in the living room and slept on the floor, huddled together in lonely comfort.
Ethiopians live intimately with death, I noticed. Not so in my home country. During my years in the United States, no one close to me died. I attended no funerals during my carefree college days, or later as a young professional.
Death was more or less a taboo topic. In the middle school where I worked, we didn’t mention school shootings. When at parties or at church, we didn’t talk about global disasters. Only my grandparents, who perhaps felt death deeper in their bones, mentioned it at all. Otherwise, my youth, steady pace of accumulation, and breakneck schedule kept me from contemplating death.
In 2005, I moved to Bolivia to work with women in prostitution. I had hardly settled in to my new life and work when the funerals started. My friends who prostitute, I found out quickly, do not have long life expectancies. The first funeral was for a friend who had been strangled by an unknown client. A week later, two sisters were poisoned. Because they were killed in brothels, the police never investigated these murders.
The deaths kept piling up every month, like body bags drifting back from war. The son of a friend was hit by a taxi and killed; another girl who works on the street was found dead, cause unknown. People shouldn’t have to confront death so regularly, I argued to God.
Then, when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I was shocked to hear that my friend Vanessa, had murdered another woman who prostitutes, my friend Marguerita. Vanessa had attended lunches at our drop-in center for more than a year. I had hugged her, shared her meals, and taken pictures of her smiling as she held her baby daughter. And now, in a drunken fight, she had taken another woman’s life.
That funeral was the worst yet. Bolivian funerals are the opposite of Ethiopian funerals. Instead of loud, bare grief, there was a bleak silence in the room where Marguerita was laid for viewing. I walked into a dark room, lit only by the eerie purple light of a neon Jesus above the casket. Girls huddled in small groups crying silently. Beer was passed around, then cigarettes, and then coca leaves. Anything to dull the fear. Anything to forget.
Funerals in Ethiopia terrify me, but this one was pure misery. In that room, there was no hope at all. The women sitting in silence were looking at their own future. With Marguerita’s murder they were betrayed, not by a violent client or indifferent police, but by one of their own. And unlike an Ethiopian family, they would not cling together that night to comfort each other on a pile of mattresses. Instead, each woman slipped off to a tiny closet of a room, where clients would pay for a few minutes on her single, dirty mattress.
As she left for the brothels, one friend clutched my arm and whispered, “She’s more beautiful in death.” But her face betrayed despair, and when I hugged her good-bye, she didn’t let go.
Suffering and death seem to bring Christians to the edge of faith more than anything else. But looking at Marguerita that night, I didn’t doubt the goodness of God or his ultimate plan for salvation. I was angry, but it was because I couldn’t figure out what he wanted me to do in the midst of this despair—I was in as much danger as these women of being swallowed up by the numbness.
When Jesus arrived at the funeral of his friend Lazarus, I think the mourning was probably African-style. I imagine Mary and Martha running to Jesus and clinging to him, their grief loud and accusing. And even after he tells them that their brother will rise again, and that he is that resurrection, Jesus still cries for his friend.
So I cried for Marguerita. I sat on a splintery wooden bench in the cold, emptying room while the last few mourners whispered prayers or curses or questions at God or the devil, and I cried.
Then, in the after-cry dullness, I heard a little voice that I recognize as the Holy Spirit whispering to me, “Comfort my people.” Everything in that room—the fear, the anger, the substance abuse—decried that voice, but I tried. I’m sure Jesus hugged Mary and Martha as they cried, so I hugged my friends and told them I was praying for them.
When I got home that night, exhausted and still confused with God, I looked up that phrase I had heard:
Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for [. . . .]”
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together. (Isaiah 40: 1-2, 5)
There is nothing I would rather do than flee from death. There is nothing more exhausting, more numbing than huddling next to it in defiance.
But if I’m called to stay close to death, I’m also called to proclaim the glory of the Lord in the midst of it. Proclaim it with fierce hugs and stubborn hope. Proclaim it with presence, in a dark viewing room or in the brothels themselves. Proclaim that the glory of God has triumphed over death, and will triumph again and again. Perhaps in the small cell where Vanessa will spend the next ten years of her life. Perhaps in the life of her daughter, being brought up by relatives. Perhaps in my own life as God renews, turning the deaths around me into life.