The first dead person I ever saw in daylight was a young boy lying next to a road in Tanzania. It was early morning and we were driving south on the country’s main highway when I saw the crows fly up out of a ditch. I craned my neck to see what they’d been eating. He was lying face down, arm stretched over his head, shirt pulled up under his armpits. The driver saw it and hit the brakes.
“Was it a dog?” someone asked.
“It was a person!” the driver said. He turned to me. “Did you see it?”
Stopped in the middle of the road, we decided to tell the next policeman we saw and drove on. But by the time we saw a policeman we were hundreds of miles away from the boy and there was no point. We passed him by and never spoke of it again.
Since then, I have spent a fair amount of time in Africa, and I am often struck that death is never quite far enough away for comfort. It can feel close, not as an abstract concept or a telegenic tragedy, but as something real and personal. Many of the other places I’ve felt this closeness have been in Nigeria, Djibouti, Kenya. These were not dangerous places, but there were moments when death had to be faced as something tangible and possible for me and for those around me.
Nobody wants to live with such thin margins. But sometimes I think about how far removed we are from such things, living in our culture of perpetual youth. When I see this giant lobster coffin, I think about the luxury of that. I think about the boy and his mother’s tears. I think of the waters closing behind him and life moving on. In Sowah Kwei’s lobster coffin I see death as something that cannot be ignored, but that must be acknowledged and if possible honored. When I look at this coffin, I see beauty and courage and a bit of joy plucked from darkness. I see laughter in spite of—or maybe because of—heartbreak. I see not just art, but a kind of artful living. And finally, when I look at this coffin I see all the things I still want to do before my lobster comes for me.
Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes (Melville House), a global investigation of the surprising things we believe against all reason. The book is released April 26, with a launch at Open Book in Minneapolis on May 2. You’ll find it at the museum, among other booksellers, in The Store at Mia.
Based in Minneapolis, he has written for Harper’s, Outside, Runner’s World, The New Republic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other publications. Read more at frankbures.com.