Remember that great D-Day movie “The Longest Day”? We had one Monday, 14 Oct 2013 and it was nearly as heartrending.
Got a phone call Sunday afternoon, 13 Oct, from our Mission President. He informed me three (actually four) Church members were killed in an auto accident not far from here…6 people – all relatives returning from a family burial earlier in the week died in a head-on collision on their way towards Kampala when their car went under a tractor-trailer rig. The members were Tony, a return missionary just starting college; and a couple and their baby (with five more young children left at home). The accident happened quite a distance from their home towns but their native villages where burials take place are about three hours further north from us. Since the deceased all lived in Jinga (eight hours south) or Kampala (6 hours) we did not know any of them.
The mission president asked us to assist the Jinga priesthood leadership by transporting the bodies in the back of our truck to their respective villages. Five were being buried in a village 40 kilometers north of Kitgum and Tony in his village an additional 28 kilometers west. We were also asked to transport Steve, the counselor in the Jinga branch presidency. We had no idea where we were going on the muddy, pot-holed roads with no street signs or markers, but we also picked up Tony’s brother, an uncle, as well as his “father”(uncle who raised him after his mother died), who were familiar with the area.
Most Ugandans aren’t embalmed so the funeral has to take place quickly before the body explodes…sorry folks…that ‘s what happens to unembalmed exposed bodies after we die. One has about 3 days to get a body into the ground. Family members are responsible for finding/hiring a boda driver, truck or taxi to transport the bodies. Unbeknownst to us, a benevolent member of Uganda’s Parliament made arrangements for the transportation of the bodies as well as purchased each of the caskets, so it turned out we only haul some of the relatives who had traveled all night by bus to Gulu.
I had been instructed to properly dress Tony for his burial, which was scheduled for 3pm, followed by the burial of the other five at 4:00 at a different site allegedly a kilometer down the road. The Jinga branch counselor was asked by the relatives of the other family to plan their service which was to include me speaking and then dedicating the graves, and Pam giving the benediction.
As is so often the case, communications were mixed up. We arrived at the first location around 2:30, , which turned out to be the second funeral scheduled for 4:00, but the services were already well underway. We were told we should still walk back to where the burial service was taking place. There were at least five hundred people sitting on the ground, most under tents, around the premises. Pam was given a seat on the front row with all the political dignitaries and the catholic priest. I was seated behind her.
As we arrived, the Catholic priest had already spoken and a local politician was now giving a sermon in their native language, Acholi. He also chanted a Catholic hymn which the person seated by Pam joined in. Pam commented to him that the chant was beautiful; “what did it say?” Just then the Catholic priest came up to her and told her “You go!” several times. She thought she had offended them by asking the question, and was supposed to leave, but wasn’t sure what she should do, especially since she didn’t know where I was sitting. Finally the man seated next to her said the priest wanted her to address the people – to give a talk, which she did on the spot. She expressed her love of the Acholi people and her gratitude for their example of great faith in Jesus Christ. She also shared a brief testimony of the Plan of Salvation and the resurrection Then I spoke briefly, our talks being translated into Acholi for the mourners. I then dedicated the gravesites of all those who were still being buried on the family property just behind us…the baby, the married couple and two other family members, 5 in all.
We then headed to the service of the returned missionary, which turned out to be another 28 kilometers a way. 28 kilometers doesn’t sound far, but these are more rutted paths than roads, so travel is very slow. The last few kilos were a bushwack around the huts.
When we arrived to Tony’s family property, the majority of the mourners were sitting solemnly under their tents, with a few of the women off to the side wailing. While we were waiting for instructions regarding dressing Tony, Pam asked if it would be okay to go offer comfort to Tony’s sister who was crying uncontrollably some distance away from the other mourners. She was told yes. Pam sat beside her caressing her, wiping away her tears and talking to her, praying that the Holy Ghost would bring her comfort. Not knowing if she understood any English, she told the woman of her own great distress when her little daughter died suddenly , but that the Holy Ghost could comfort her as He had Pam. In a short time, she stopped crying and was able to join the rest of the mourners.
I was called out with a few others to dress Tony. Several dozen came to gawk as the casket was opened, but those at Tony’s head showed the respect and reverence Tony deserved. It was not possible to dress him, so the clothing was placed alongside him.
Here also, some of Tony’s family had changed their mind and hired a local priest to conduct the funeral service. Perhaps this was a good thing because by this time the black rain clouds and accompanying thunder were beginning to roll in. We, as well as the truckload of mourners from Jinga needed to get on the road or we would never make it home on these muddy roads. Before the pastor began his sermon, I dedicated the grave site, even though the body had not yet been placed in the ground. . Again, our church priesthood leader translated my English into Acholi about the sacredness of this gravesite as well as Tony’s assured resurrection through Jesus Christ.
The actual funeral service took place AFTER Tony was buried – everyone wanted to make sure the burial happened before the torrential rains came in.
Tradition is that the mourners come to comfort the family but may need to leave before the actual funeral service begins, especially if there are weather problems. They then return in the evening, or if possible, over the next 3 days to offer solace. There were two large trucks of mourners (see Pic). One was local and the other one filled with a large host of people who had driven up from Jinja, more than 12 hours away from this village, with close to 50 people standing all the way either holding on to the side of the truck or to each other. We can’t imagine how difficult this would be, even if they were traveling on a good interstate, but especially with the terrible road conditions in Northern Uganda.
In one of the pictures below, the two trucks had beat us out of the burial but the first one was mired in the mud on the "road" which was the only one way out of the familiy’s property. They dug, placed branches under the tires but that big truck wasn't going anywhere. I decided to try to 4 wheel drive my truck out. I swung to the left of the rear truck then to the right of the lead truck and we got through OK. You can see there was no road left for me to drive on so I simply drove through the tall grass. Thank goodness there were no tree stumps as on other occasions. The lead truck stuck in the mud then wanted me to pull him out. That wasn’t going to happen with my little pickup truck and I felt bad about leaving them there but there was nothing I could do about it. You can see how large a truck it is.
We apologized and headed down the road. By now the rain had begun falling and driving slowly...5 to 10 MPH (not slow enough for Pam). Did a 10 degree donut almost sliding off the road. A few minutes later we did slide off and were unable to get “unstuck” even with 4 wheel drive. Some walking and boda driving passers-by from the funeral stopped, crammed some tree branches under the tires, pushed the truck while I drove it and we managed our way out of what looked like a very dire situation. Five minutes later we slid off the other side of the road. Dropped into 4 wheel low drive again and we spun and bumped our way in the muddy road gully nearly 50-75 feet down the road until we popped back out onto the top of the road.. Don’t know how that happened except with the help of unseen beings who had to push us out of the muddy gulley. Our passengers were scared to death and wanted to walk back to town but Steve the counselor talked them out of it as it would have taken several hours into the dark. I drove even slower at this point and tried to stay right on top of the middle of the road. Still we might as well have been driving on ice, slipping and sliding, managing the steering so as not to head into the ditch again. My shoes were so covered in wet red mud, having gotten out of the car twice to assess the situation, both felt like they weighed an extra 5 pounds…told you I’d gain my weight back. Most unpleasant experience…BUT WAIT…there’s more…
In the opinion of all in our mission it is too dangerous to drive after dark in Uganda. We were reminded of that just last nite by our Mission President, having dinner at his home in Kampala. We have avoided doing so like the plague! But on the night of the funerals, it is now 7:00 pm, totally dark and we have 3 hours till we make it home down a horrible potholed dirt road to Gulu. Hard to see the many dark skinned people in dark clothes walking to and from their villages and there are NO street lights. Our senior couple friends in the south warn us about driving through the Rain Forest at night but at least it is asphalt covered…it is nothing compared to driving between Kitgum and Gulu at night. We are on a dirt road, most of which is dry but there are occasional wet spots and many pot holes…more than in all of Texas combined. We hit one of these spots and I lost control of the car and we spun out of control and ended up perpendicular to the road, front first into the weeds and muck…one more time again. I was fortunate enough to rock my way back and forth out of the mess and we headed home for another 2 hours or so….no damage to the truck. Was a white-knuckled ride home, believe me. We reached our front gate at 9:59. We had to rely on prayers and angels all the way.
In spite of the difficulties of this trip, we are grateful we were able to serve in some small capacity. The people were appreciative of “Mzungus” coming to their village and the burials, and the Spirit of the Lord was in attendance as we bore witness of God’s eternal love for each of His children.
Life is often like this journey, full of uncertainty as to where to go, how to get there or what to do, knowing full well there are always dangers around us. Yet if we trust in the Lord, walking in faith in Christ, we will be able to make our way out of the darkness. Experiences such as these help us appreciate more than ever the countless blessings we take for granted on a daily basis. We are so grateful for the Savior’s tender mercies and the lessons learned from this experience.
Perhaps 50 people in this truck all the way from Jinja, UG where the family was living at the time of the accident. I believe these people came up for the family who had been killed as I did not see this truck at the second service we attended.
The two trucks ahead of us as we were trying to leave before the rains came. The yellow one is in the bottom of a small gully, completely bogged down. Nothing they could do would get them out. They had no idea of the challenge they would face down the road if they were to have escaped. The muddy road would have taken them right off the side of it to the left or right. I imagine a lot, maybe all of these people walked into town 25 kilometers that night to find a place to rest their heads until the ground dried and the truck was rescued. Maybe they all stayed back at the family's property. You can see there was no real room to maneuver around either of these vehicles. I could only drive my truck through the tall grass. Fortunately, there were no nearby trees blocking my way. We believe it also was a tender mercy for these people that they couldn't get out that night. Can you imagine what would have happened to those in the back of these trucks sliding off the road? They were still in walking distance of the erected tents for Tony's burial.
The gathering storm clouds. Believe me, when it rains, it really rains here. Very little drizzle.I ’m talking sheets of downpour. This one could have been a lot worse though as it didn't rain hard and was a quick storm. We were headed in the opposite direction of the storm too.
"From the beginning down through the dispensations, God has used angels as His emissaries in conveying love and concern for His children. Time in this setting does not allow even a cursory examination of the scriptures or our own latter-day history, which are so filled with accounts of angels ministering to those on earth, but it is rich doctrine and rich history indeed.
Usually such beings are not seen. Sometimes they are. But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private. Occasionally the angelic purpose is to warn. But most often it is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times." Jeffrey R Holland, Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.