The crowd gathers, old torn cloth forms a canopy of sorrows. Men, one side, somber. Women another, their brightly colored clothes belie the sorrow that palpitates from beyond the many veiled faces. We gather our knees close and sit shoulder to shoulder, listening as the priest pulls us through a ceremony no one expected to hear today.
The heat, the dust, the bright sunshine grow distant to the sounds of crying and confusion.
The body of a very young mother lies still. Covered with a bright yellow chaddar, or veiling cloth, incense burns around her breathless body providing an eerie scent to accompany the atmosphere of shock and pain.
Words spoken, I hardly listen beyond something about our desire to find fault, yet in reality it is just God’s choice who lives or dies. Perhaps that is why I do not listen closely. What sadness fills us to think this young woman is gone forever to her toddler and two-month-old infant, to her young husband.
He covers his face with a shield of stoicism. It does not last. He meekly joins a long line for communion. No preference for his status. He carries on quietly.
Flies come and rest. Our hands, our feet, we sit in a company of winged strangers. Songs rise and few voices join as hymns are sung a capella.
Then comes, eventually, the box. Chaotic sobs ensue. Wailing and weeping flood the space. Soon even her body will be lost to us, like her soul that left just hours before.
As one, bodies crush in to see her face one last time. Women gather, space is made for some of us to walk slowly clockwise around this old cot laden with a box of invaluable flesh and bones. Sobbing explodes from her brothers in ways only a gut-wrenching grief has power to do. Quietly, I look upon her face for the first and last time. As others before me, I lightly lay my hand upon her head, a last customary greeting, a final touch of blessing. As I back away to my less obtrusive place, a woman passes out from grief, never have I seen it as it was today.
Minutes later the sweet young husband approaches the wife he thought would accompany him to old age. He is no longer held together, but instead has come apart. He weeps openly and his sobbing father holds him up, barely. Together their tears meet as they cry into each other and say goodbye to the dearly loved wife, the daughter not of his blood. Minutes are slow with their finality. I cannot look in on these private moments.
Commotion draws my gaze back and the wooden cot is lifted above bowed heads. As she leaves the cries elevate in a cacophony of sorrow. One brother drops to the ground, safer in unconsciousness than in facing the pain of watching her small body leave the village one final time. The men move slowly to the burial site. The women stay behind. We walk away, to our respective places. The service has ended, the cries have not.
A sick mother, a brief hospital visit, a mystery of death pervades the space. What brought this community to its knees to face her absence? Medical incompetency, certainly; yet, there is no cure for that in this place. We balk at what should not be, but is. We pray for understanding. With audacity we call it loss.