From the heady ecstasy of my last visit to a Liberian church, an unfortunate death in the Kakata YMCA family saw a few UK volunteers, coupled with the majority of our Liberian counterparts, head to church once more. Weenor Zinnah was a much-loved member of the local community and also happened to be the wife of the head of the local YMCA.
It was thus a solemn party that made it’s way to the funeral, at a small church on the other side of the city. It was a scorchingly hot day, and having jumped off the motorbikes and trudged up the hill, I was already dripping with sweat. We bought a decorative wreath that was pure white from a young boy outside, and headed inside. The church was quite small, made of reddish brick, whilst the interior was fairly plain inside. This was more than compensated for by the masses of people inside, with well over 100 people inside before the service had even started! Friends and family were seated in the centre, whilst we were given seats to the right. Loud Liberian music blared through the speakers, whilst an impossibly large amount of people found seats, yet more continued to arrive. By the time we were ready to start, people were standing in the aisles and peering in through the windows and doors. It was incredibly moving to see such an enormous turnout, and I felt more than a little guilty at being afforded seats at a funeral for someone whom I didn’t know, and I indeed had never met. I appreciated the immense privilege bestowed upon us volunteers as part of the YMCA family, and I was honoured to show my support to Mr. Moore Zinnah, the director of our YMCA branch.
The funeral itself was the most intense experience of my life.
It is very hard to encapsulate this event into words, but here we go.
The service started with the Pastor corralling everyone into their positions, before the choir sang a small series of tuneful melodies to commence proceedings. Everyone stood, and we launched into one of the great hymns, ‘How Great Thou Art’, though of course with it’s own Liberian patois. After a few sermons, the coffin was quietly moved to the front of the church, marking the start of the tributes. We heard great testimonies of Weemor’s life, from friends, family and the many organisations that were proud to have her as a member. My passive role in the ceremony was uncomfortably disrupted when the priest called upon the ICS volunteers to deliver their tribute, which meant us! We all stood up and slowly walked in procession to the front of the church, the eyes of literally hundreds upon these Liberians and their strange white friends that were dripping even more with sweat. We stood behind the coffin, but in front of a great ocean of people, whilst Oliver, one of our counterparts, gave a short speech. I was suddenly very, very aware of how hot it was in that small room, and I felt myself swaying in the heat in front of so many expectant faces. We eventually made it back to our seats without incident, and Oliver had delivered a nice tribute. The raw fear of being handed the microphone at the moment will live with me for a long time to come, however! Shortly after this, I was pretty much forced to take photographs of the event by a Liberian volunteer, which felt incredibly wrong to me. Many Liberians were using cell phones to record the funeral, but it went against everything I know about funerals. I took a very small number of shots before sitting down as quickly as I could, to a conciliatory pat on the back from my UK volunteers.
The family then delivered some incredibly moving tributes, which were met by a great wall of sound, a tremendous outpouring of sheer grief from the crowd. The children did such a beautiful tribute amidst such a daunting crowd, and then a loud wailing began throughout the church. It was such an entirely human, visceral outpouring of great sorrow, and the sound seemed to pierce my soul. Such a display of emotion was unlike anything I’d experience before, and the audible pain that everybody was displaying caused the hairs on the back of my neck to rise, and my body to shiver. I finally felt a tear escape my expert efforts to disguise it, and it fell to the dust below. My fellow UK volunteer, Ryan, was far younger than I, and I still have no idea how he kept things together so well in the circumstances. We helped each other throughout, and at this point we embraced. As the sound receded we slowly gathered ourselves, but our minds remained in those desperately sad few moments we had experienced. I still get chills today when I think about that time.
Another hymn followed, supported by a fabulous gospel choir, which raised our spirits once more, and the funeral became a celebration of life once again. Things took a slightly strange turn when an important Pastor from another region stood up to speak, and launched into a fiercely aggressive, fire-and-brimstone sermon about scripture. The sermon was loud and rather threatening, and I became intensely aware of how hot it was in that cauldron of a church. Not wishing to faint in the middle of the ceremony, we respectfully bid our goodbyes. I was amazed to find another hundred people (or more) outside, listening in and celebrating the late Weemor’s life, and it truly struck home about how big an event this was in the community.
This was my first ever funeral, which made it quite an impactful moment in my life. I appreciate that it was different from a UK funeral, but that by no means was a bad thing. The vibrancy, spirit and unity of the service was emotionally touching on the highest level. It was a deeply moving tribute to a much loved and respected young woman, and that has a universally sacred quality, regardless of my own upbringing and traditions. They have a beautifully dignified phrase for death in Liberia, saying that the ‘sun has set on their life’, and I can only hope it catches on all over the world.
This was a funeral fit for a Liberian Queen, which Weemor evidently was.
May she rest in peace.
Weemore Zinnah, Sunrise in 1977, Sunset in 2017.