Grieving through a global pandemic

I grew up in the small rural settlement of Augrabies in the Northern Cape. Today, 17,500 km from home, my South African upbringing remains undeniably part of who I am. I’m a first generation expatriate. Much can be debated about the polarity between ‘emigrant’ vs ‘immigrant’ terminology, but to me, the term merely implies the longing to go home, and to be at home.

My experience is not unique. Along with 820,000 other South African families living abroad, labeling this longing as mere “homesickness” does not suffice. We persistently struggle with cultural bereavement and long for a sense of cultural congruity. 

Some communities steel themselves against this trauma by cueing a list of “push factors”: financial instability, safety, lack of opportunity… Others attempt to celebrate their heritage, undetered by the discordance of our daily lives in a world so different from home. We stay up to date with the news, hope to one day return, and keep in touch with family. Today, this is remarkably easy via digital communication.

On a video call in my kitchen I will ask my tannie how to make a koeksister. My brother-in-law often calls as he drives home after a night shift, just as we sit down for dinner. On my commute, I listened to my godchild’s first recorded laughter through my earphones. 

Nonetheless, sometimes the burden of longing becomes too heavy, and we get on a plane for a visit. It became too heavy when my grandfather passed away in May 2020. This time, a call or text wouldn’t suffice. I wanted to go home, but lockdown made it impossible.

With his descendants and loved ones scattered between Australia, Germany, the UK, the Cape and the Boesmanland, I knew that a live streamed funeral with an unstable internet connection would only serve as a painful reminder that we couldn’t come together to mourn the passing of our patriarch. I decided to compile an audio memorial service by collecting eulogies, in the form of WhatsApp voice notes, from friends and family. 

Using these eulogies, along with carefully curated background music and sound effects, I crafted a well-rounded memorial service that we could all listen to simultaneously. From the intimacy of our living rooms, speckled across the globe, we said goodbye. Together. Yet apart. 

Conscious of the significant hurdles many face during the Covid-19 pandemic, I founded Herklink – a portmanteau of “remember” and “sound” in Afrikaans. Herklink produces audio memorials for families who are unable to hold a traditional funeral due to the current travel restrictions, be it international, or between neighbouring suburbs.

The audio format of a private podcast is a protective shield against judgment, nerves, and fear. Family members can record a eulogy in a setting they feel most comfortable in. Some read a letter they wrote to the deceased, others record a brief message whilst running an errand. Recording a eulogy with your smartphone is easy and accessible to young and old.

I request my clients to collect the eulogies within a 14 day timeframe. The main contact person, usually a next of kin, receives the eulogies and then forward them to me. My clients tell me that collecting the messages is a comforting show of support. One person aptly described the process as “a way for our family to reclaim our grief.”

Once I receive these eulogies, I use my skills as a playwright to create a narrative of the person’s life. The audio memorial serves as a tacit reminder that although the deceased is no longer physically present, our memories of them remain real.  Furthermore, evidence suggests that stories recorded and consumed in auditory format are cognitively and emotionally more engaging at a physiological level. Listening to a story, rather than watching a live video stream of a funeral, is an active process of co-creation and imaginative effort. One could say it is an intentional and motivated method to grieve.

Each family takes full ownership of the distribution via a secure web page, and can listen to the service when most convenient, often to account for different time zones. For two of our clients, we’ve seen a combined total of 1,078 audio streams to date. Many listen to the memorial more than once. “It’s a priceless family keepsake that we can listen to again and again, a tangible tribute to honour my mother.”

Our mission for Herklink is to create an accessible, affordable and authentic platform for all South African families to mourn, regardless of where they live. In a time where funerals have become increasingly exploitive and expensive, an audio memorial is a meaningful addition to a traditional funeral. Listening to the stories of those  we love is a rekindling of our shared wisdom. In 2021, we will need this wisdom to better our lives, and those of others, more than ever.

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