Sister Bernadine Frieda, 91, spry and sharp, spends her days visiting the infirm with Sister Marie Kellner, 77, both of them onetime science teachers. Sister Marie, who left the classroom because of multiple sclerosis, reminds an astounded sister with Alzheimer’s that she was once a high school principal (“I was?!”) and sings “Peace Is Like a River” to the dying.
“We don’t let anyone go alone on the last journey,” Sister Marie said.
Seven priests moved here in old age, paying their own way, as does Father Shannon, who presides over funerals that are more about the celebratory “alleluia” than the glum “De Profundis.” But he has been with the sisters since he entered the priesthood, first as a professor at Nazareth College, founded by the order, and now as their chaplain. He shares with them the security of knowing he will not die among strangers who have nothing in common but age and infirmity.
“This is what our culture, our society, is starved for, to be rich in relationships,” Sister Mary Lou said. “This is what everyone should have.”
Speaking of parting, it is only rarely that dirges are heard in Kawu nowadays. Two factors are contributing to their decline: firstly the fact that many churches discourage their use, preferring edifying hymns instead. The reason behind this, I am told, is that the dirges reflect a pre-Christian worldview and as such are to be eschewed by true Christians. A second factor has been the coming of electricity to the villages halfway the nineties, which has led to loud music taking the place of the dirges during the wakekeepings. Elsewhere I wrote that “culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself”, yet at the same time I can’t help but lament the imminent loss of such a rich vein of Mawu culture.
However, during my last fieldtrip there were some signs of a renewed interest in the genre. For example, one pastor told me that he had been reconsidering the rash dismissal of the dirges by his church. Realizing how important the dirges had been in containing, orienting, and canalizing the feelings of loss and pathos surrounding death, he felt that the Christian hymns did not always offer an appropriate replacement. Another hopeful event was that I was approached with the request to help record a great number of dirges in Akpafu-Todzi in August 2008. This was not just to record them for posterity (although this was part of the motivation), but also very practically so that they could be played at wakekeepings. I gladly complied with this wish of course. The result is a beautiful collection of 42 dirges, sung by eight ladies between 57 and 87 years of age. The first time the dirges were played at a funeral they sparked a wave of interest.
That is why the Great Plague of 1665 has been largely understood as a London phenomenon. The sites of old plague pits are now pointed out with understandable pride. Richard Barnett reveals that the escalator at Camden Town Underground station passes through a vast grave for plague victims, and that a “massive plague pit” is responsible for the low ceiling of the basement of Harvey Nichols. It would be fair to say that he takes a certain, rather morbid, pleasure in compiling this Baedeker of disease and suffering. But why not? This is London’s real heritage. Together with this volume are a glossary and six maps, so that the reader can make his or her way down the various roads to oblivion. If you wish to follow the course of tropical disease as it ate its way to the heart of the metropolis, you can do so; you can follow the route of the plague, or the life of an 18th-century medical student. All human life, and human death, is here.