The rice dish at the end of life
The grim procession snakes from the farmhouse across the werf towards the low white wall that surrounds the little fenced cemetery. The dominee’s right arm is heavy under the weight of the heavy family Bible, rendering him lopsided, as though he has a limp. An old man near the back of the procession leans on his walking stick, head bowed, brow morose; the son should not die before the father. Two children, a boy and a girl, slightly younger, skip and giggle with the insouciance of the innocent; a mother and aunt chastise them, bringing them to heel. A dog wanders the yard oblivious.
When the day and the climbing sun have taken their toll of sweat and tears, the troupe is less ordered as they traipse back to the house, the wailing done, regrets pocketed, resolve firm. These people are stoics, as were their forebears. They know that the putting to the ground of the loved one is also the laying to rest of the hope that they might see him just one more time. Even as they turned away from the grave, they were turning their backs on the life all had had with that person, and facing the rest of their lives without him. This is the way of life and death.
But first, after the sombre ritual, there must be the joy, inasmuch as any can be found in it, the trenchant telling of tales about the life of the departed, and the feasting.
The feasting. At the old Cape, whether in the town or a dorp deep in the country, a funeral could be a lavish affair, not dissimilar to a modern day after-tears gathering.
Renata Coetzee, in her The South African Culinary Tradition, wrote that an old Cape funeral was “a major social occasion”, so much so that laws had to be promulgated to make the proceedings less extravagant.
There was even an element of what today might be termed rent-a-crowd. When a funeral was held after dark, lantern bearers were hired to light the way for the cortège. Weepers, called huilebalke, were paid to sob and wail, while others called trop sluiters or procession joiners were hired to bring up the rear, to create an impression of greater numbers.
After the funeral, “everyone who had been to the cemetery, including the hired participants ...