I had an older friend, Uncle Blackie. Uncle Blackie is Togolese and he has an almost wicked sense of humour. Uncle Blackie is quite well-to-do and he takes no prisoners when it comes to his personal beliefs, especially about afro-centric issues. Some years back Uncle Blackie lost a close relative and we were all gathered for the funeral. I have no idea how much Uncle Blackie did for this relative while she was alive but she was not a rich woman in any way. In fact she was quite poor and she was going to be buried in a very modest manner. Uncle Blackie would have none of it.
Uncle Blackie was well over six feet tall with the frame of a championship wrestler and the voice to match hi huge frame. When he spoke, you listened. He practically bellowed in his booming voice that the lady would be buried ‘properly.’
Then he said something that has stayed with me for the many years since he said it. He said,“Funerals are the only things we know how to do in Africa; it is the only honour we know how to bestow on our relatives so we may as well do it right.” Uncle Blackie had his way. They got a better coffin to bury her in and there was a big party.
And that set me to thinking.
Why do we honour the dead in the way we do? Why do we go to so much trouble and expense for someone who is no longer here and so cannot really be bothered? When we bury the dead who are we actually honouring? For whose sake do we go to all that trouble? Do the dead care? Does it make their journey to the land of beyond an easier one?
It is sometimes disheartening to see a man who has lived in penury all his life and probably dies because there was no money to pay his medical bill buried like a king. Of course this culture of lavish funerals is not universal; in some parts of Africa, the dead are buried simply and quietly and allowed to truly rest in peace. A friend once told me that in her culture the body would not even be kept till the children of the deceased arrived. The day after, or the same day, depending on the time of death, a simple coffin would be procured by the closest available family members and buried in a simple grave. It did not matter the person’s social status. If the children complain, they are sharply reminded that the dead belong to the family and not the children alone.
Not so with some other parts of the country.
I recall when my father passed on several years ago. The man had lived a quiet and principled life and several times he had spoken out against lavish funerals, describing them as unnecessary frivolities. He would say we could toss his body wherever we pleased when he died because he would no longer be in it. In fact he often threatened to ‘deal’ with anyone who buried him lavishly. When he eventually died, his body was kept in the morgue for two months and at his funeral there were several musical stars from all over the country. It was a carnival of sorts. I sat quietly at some point reflecting on how upset he would be if he could see it all.
And so I ask again: who do we honour when we hold lavish funerals? The dead are gone and nothing we do will bring them back so why do we bother with the so-called ‘befitting burials?’ could it be that the burials are really just to massage our egos and prove to the world that we are all that? People get into all kinds of debt to show the world how much they loved a dead family member, and to what end, I ask? Would it not make more sense if we took care of the living and allowed the dead to quietly exit the stage?
No doubt there are some personalities whose death brings people together and whose legacies must be talked about at the time of their passing, no one for instance, should expect that a man like Nelson Mandela should have been buried quietly; my angst is when people who never saw the four walls of a school have their obituaries splashed in several dailies; when people die of hunger and the families borrow money to give them a ‘befitting burial.’
Shouldn’t we be more concerned with giving people a befitting life?