It was like a break dance with the dead, the day I celebrated mass at St Steven’s Cemetery. All Souls’ Day, Tuesday second November 2002.
The choir sang an old Igbo song about the Holy Mass being a super communion between angels, the living, and the dead; very fitting for the occasion. When the priest lifted the host during consecration, I could see not two hands but ten, or twenty, or thirty, probably more. I could then see why his hand stayed firm even when it seemed to me that he held it up for much longer than I had witnessed in any mass. More than ever before, the shrill sound of the consecration bell added a ghostly quality to the silence in the church.
We sat in oblong pews of concrete graves which lay in quiet repose right through the cemetery ground, literarily making us bedfellows with the sleeping inmates below. The Gospel spoke of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. At the point where Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the grave, I felt that the concrete works which held our august companions in eternal captivity were about cracking open, smoke spewing forth from the earth, and the ground shaking.
The choir had now intoned a song about Jerusalem being a city where the holy and the innocent enjoy eternal peace. I could see the bright solemnity on the faces of the worshipers and feel the confident spirituality in their voices. The song had lifted them above earthly realm. They were on Air Halloween. The song was the aviation fuel. The priest, resplendent in clerical robes of purple and white, was the pilot. Jerusalem was the destination.
I alone remained to conclude the uncommon communion with the departed brethren. I ceased upon the opportunity to begin a mind game in which I asked my fellow worshipers to come out of their reverie if only for a few seconds, just to tell me who their bedmates or seatmates were. “Is he or she fair or dark?” I would further ask. “Fat or thin, rich or poor?” And I was too willing to provide the answers to those questions myself. For I could picture, seated beside each of the worshipers, different shapes, sizes and colours of human-like beings whose eerie presence in the mass was known only to me.
Huddled beside me on a small, mossy grave, was somebody who seemed to have suddenly emerged from nowhere. He was a big bull of a man. His disposition showed that he was neither part of, nor was he interested in the free airlift to Jerusalem. His face was fleshy with age. His well-groomed hair was ebony-dark. His sagging waist was held firm by a black belt, which ran across a neat dress of sky-blue shirt and navy-blue trousers. I couldn’t place his age.
That he was heavily bothered by something was clearly written all over him. Hungry for something that would take my mind away from the arresting air of death across the cemetery, I asked him, “what’s bothering you, Papa? Is it something you can share?”
He sorrowfully swayed his body this way and that, and pointed to the grave on which he sat saying, “the person inside this grave is my boy, the child of my strength. He has been lying asleep here for 50 years.”
50 years! That’s a massive amount of time. The boy was old enough to be my father. That means Papa was old enough to be my grandfather. So many thoughts crossed my mind. How could a boy be my father? How could a boy remain a boy even after fifty years of existence? Was this what the English meant when they said that the boy is father to the man?
It was then that I became aware that the graves in this cemetery were of different lengths. That meant they contained people of different ages. It was so clumsy of me that I failed to include age as an important criterion when I was selecting mates for my fellow worshipers. The selection would be easier done on age basis, since that was the only feature of our sleeping companions that could be deciphered without the aid of rocket science. It would have been perfect if that was done at the beginning of the mass, before the living worshipers choose dead mates for themselves. It dawned on me that age was a strong factor that should never be neglected, even in the relationship between the living and the dead.