13 March, 2013

An elephant's funeral

What do you wear to an American funeral, at a high Anglican church, in cold New England? I thought black was a safe bet: black dress, black tights black boots. And a grey-blue scarf. I briefly wondered if the scarf was too much. Then I rolled my eyes - oh please! This was for Dr. Lumsdaine.  His trademarks were untucked shirts and skewed ties, chalk-handprints on his trousers, messy hair and mis-matched socks. I don't think he'd care about my scarf.

I'm going to miss him.

Dr. Lumsdaine (Dr. D), was my old politics professor and he passed away after a sudden heart attack last week. He was 64 and his unexpected death left our college community shaken. Dr. D was an intellectual giant, a genius, I think and an extremely humble man who devoted his life to his students. He'd give out his phone number and say, "call me anytime of day or night", and he constantly prayed with students. He'd start his sentences with a nasal "eerrr....yyeeeaaaah" and his sentences with, "now the answer to this question may very well be no, or it may be yes, or it may be, 'You're crazy, Dr. D, to even think this' - which are all  ok...but..."

He was also disorganized and came late to class. He'd pull of quirky maneuvers in the classroom, (pretending to get livid and walking out just to make a point, or, when he slipped a disc in his back, he would teach from a kneeling position, or lying across the window sill) and conducted his office hours in the cafeteria (better access to students, he said). He was a little socially inappropriate. It was hard to have a conversation with him and sometimes he made loud, offensive comments in the wrong places.
Students loved him for it.

Dr. D was a man of simple touch (a hand on your shoulder) and moments of (often awkward) silence. I imagine him in heaven now, sitting with Jesus, staring with his big, watery eyes at the Lord's face. This time, there's a hand on Dr. D's shoulder and they're both smiling and silent. No awkwardness. No words necessary.

His death and funeral (we spent two hours bouncing up and down - sitting, standing, kneeling - through the hymns, prayers, communion, dedications, blessings, a homily, and a benediction. We all spoke in hushed tones when making the rounds at the after-service reception, not very Dr. D-like at all) reminded me of a funeral I saw six months ago in Zim.

We were camping in Hwange National Park and on one particular game drive we saw 100 elephants (so several herds) standing still and quiet at a watering hole. Strange. There was no splashing, no angry grunts, no playing young, no dust-throwing. Just the occasional flap of ears, or shifting of feet.They stood gathered in gray, silent groups around or in the water. Every now and then a herd would leave silently and slowly, soon replaced by a new, silent herd that lumbered forward from the dusty distance or the line of trees.
Very strange.

Then we noticed a small lump behind an anthill a short distance from the water. A small elephant body on the ground. That was why the elephants were silent - they were respecting the loss of someone's baby.
But the elephants didn't look or move in its direction, didn't acknowledge it as they walked by (not unlike my silent walk passed Dr. D's coffin on my way to the front of the church for communion). I wondered what secret communication was taking place - how was news of the death being sent through the bush? What low mourning was being rumbled at a frequency indistinguishable to my human ears?

After some time, a female moved towards the body. She approached slowly, stopping near it and swaying. She began stroking it with her trunk, nudging its ears with her feet. Four and then seven more elephants joined her, caressing, nudging, lifting it's ears and forming a wall around the body. Then in ones and twos, this farewell committee turned around and and continued on their way, slowly and steadily trudging off.

The herds around the water began to stir. Someone splashed. A few started blowing and grunting. More herds arrived, others left. Noise and movement returned.
The funeral was over.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'd love to hear from you! Please leave a comment!