Although funeral customs vary widely across cultures, virtually every human society honors the recently departed in some way. Now, in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, three young comedians are creating a new funereal rite.
Three young actors, Junior Lamusasa Ekolo, Oliver Pindi Mikungu, and Rocher Libaku, have started performing at funerals to try and make mourners laugh. And their neighbors in the Kinshasa region say that it’s working, telling the BBC that the funeral performance “returns some of the joy they have lost.”
The comedians call themselves “Les Papiers Mouchoirs,” which translates to Paper Tissues, and they say they’re supporting their families with the income from their new job.
“At first, it was difficult,” said Ekolo. “A lot of people were shocked to see us, but now what we do has become very important. Everyone prefers to have comedians.”
Although half the population of the African nation earn less than $1 per day, funeral attendees are often eager to pay for entertainment for the gathered mourners. And in a country suffering from the lingering effects of war and disease, the laughter has a healing effect on otherwise grim proceedings.
A decade of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo caused between three and five million deaths between 1998 and 2008. But researchers say the death rate has remained constant to the present day. In a country of 67.5 million people, about 540,000 die every year. For comparison, the United states has a population of 318.9 million, and about 2.4 million funerals are held annually.
“Theater is distraction,” said Libaku. “It’s joy, it’s consolation…that’s why we love theater.”
“What we do is bring joy where there is sadness,” Ekolo added.
The trio performs a variety of physical comedy, and the troupe says mourners are often so grateful for the reprieve that they are sometimes invited to participate in the funeral procession, helping families carry caskets.