The last words were said and they lowered her and the simple pine box into the grave. Family and friends stepped in unannounced, getting in the way of the cemetery staff as the casket was lowered. Her husband then took a shovel and began throwing earth on top. He handed the shovel to his eldest child and each in turn, 5 grieving children helped bury their mother with their own hands.
We were sprinkled among the 100 Congolese friends and family present. We were refugee agency case workers, school social workers and administrators, church members and family mentors; Americans who had welcomed this family and were helping them get a good start in this new world. The family had only been in the United States for a couple of months, having been persecuted and displaced from their homeland. After many years trying to survive in the primitive conditions of a refugee camp their first home in America was Welcome House. They had made it to safety – a hopeful future lying ahead.
And then the lead Pastor spoke to us. A Congolese woman translated. She told us, "You Americans leave now. But it is our tradition to stay until the last shovel of dirt has covered our loved one." Her words were uncomfortable. But then we stood there as the time-consuming, awkward and sacred ceremony concluded. Six trips of earth in total were brought by an old noisy front-end loader that smelled of burnt oil. We stood there, becoming part of the tradition, and watched shovel after shovel tossed into the grave until the refugee mother was buried.
Kim and Marc Wyatt, CBF field personnel in North Carolina