i'd like to start this post by reassuring everyone that i have not recently suffered a loss.
funerals in the Gambia are different than American funerals, of course. different cultures cope with loss in different ways, and i don't think we ever fully understand how to cope with the loss of a loved one, no matter where we are.
the first major difference is the timing. due to reasons never fully explained to me but i assume they have something to do with the extreme heat/humidity in the rainy season, the funeral is almost always the day someone dies. there are a few cases where it will be the day after the death (if the body is being moved, or people are travelling), but customarily funerals occur the same day. there is another wake 40 days after the death, and a final mourning 70 days following the persons' death. this is the grieving period. after 70 days, a person is no longer viewed as "in mourning" over the loss of a husband, child, parent, etc. the suddenness of the funerals (because death is always unexpected to some degree, even if one's health is declining it's difficult to pinpoint the exact day he/she will expire) is very incongruent with western culture. to another Gambian, there is no question, if you have a funeral, you must go. and this is understandable. loved ones need to be mourned. funerals are a very important part of the grieving process, and it is, of course, a measure of respect for the dead. i would want the same thing for myself, when my time comes. however, it is the tiniest bit irritating when you have travelled for a meeting and it has been cancelled because someone on the committee was called away at the last minute for a funeral. the funeral is both the wild card and the get out of jail free card. you can't plan for it, you never know when it's going to happen, and you can't argue with it. entire workshops have been moved, ceremonies cancelled, lives rearranged at the last possible second.
another difference is the crying. people do cry at funerals in America, but not in the same fashion. the word "keening" describes it perfectly. high-pitched wailing, flailing of limbs, people (mostly women) give themselves over to their grief in a way that almost seems over dramatized. but it does seem to exorcise their pain and give them the strength to carry on, so who am I to judge?
the final difference i will address here is the attire. in america, and many other cultures, black is the norm. but not here. the women make sure to cover their head and shoulders with an elaborate draping of shawls, but otherwise they dress up fancy or not at all. everyone looks clean and respectable, but not at all like they are in mourning. they could be going to a naming ceremony. or a wedding. it's impossible to identify.
i personally try and avoid funerals because no one i have been very close to here has died. i tend to draw a lot of attention just based on my skin color, so out of respect to the families, i avoid them so people can concentrate on mourning and not the white girl. except. one time i did accidentally ride my bike into the middle of one. an elderly neighbor had died, and i knew the funeral was being held that afternoon so i decided to bike my worries away while the general wailing was going on. but. they failed to tell me they were having the funeral in the middle of the dirt path that runs through the village. so i rode right behind the coffin before i realized what i was doing. luckily, i happened to roll up right as they were saying a prayer for the dead so every living soul was pressing their forehead into the dirt, praising Allah. somebody probably saw me make my panicked exit. but, i'm not going to say anything, and, since they were supposed to be praying, neither can they.