In The Name of Culture: The Politics of Funerals
You’ve seen them. Those incessant funeral policy infomercials, yes the very ones that forced me to put my foot down and abandon the morning ritual of watching soapie repeats. One can only take so much, you know? What does one see? Stereotypical depictions of black people at a gravesite wondering where the next loaf of bread will come from, followed by the insurance brokers offering an attractive R1 200 pay-out of groceries every month. Yay! You know what they say about stereotypes though…
The short story “Painted Sorrow”, written by a so-called novice writer from a small town made it to seventh place in the South African Writers’ College competition in 2011; an accomplishment considering the two hundred-odd entries. Please note this is not a post about the author or her achievement in this regard, but about the theme of the story: The glorification of funerals, the deceased and the politics of funerals. We are guilty of glorifying even the worst of sadists and criminals in death, not wanting to put a foot wrong when we recite that eulogy- because they have transcended into the world of ancestors. This is not to suggest that black people are the only ones guilty of this but heaven knows we like to hang on to detrimental facades as a society. How else can we explain the “chief mourner” term? Make no mistake; the knives will come out when a dead man’s mistress and estranged wife fight for their “rightful” place on the mattress, not forgetting the legendary wail. The rising cost of commodities, e-tolls and fuel levies lead to a conversation between me and the other ladies in my house. Though a lot of the time Africans are at a financial disadvantage, our reluctance to make things easier for ourselves is apparent. Truth be told, culture is largely to blame for that. Hence the conversation saw us envisioning a time when sandwiches and tea would replace the status-quo of slaughtering a cow. Nobody will have that, not even when funeral food is notorious for messing with one’s digestive system. How many of you are frowning slightly at this suggestion? I’m not. It’s cost effective, think about it. Easier said than done, just the image of gossiping neighbours calling you stingy is enough to send one right to the bank for a personal loan.
Perceptions about what others think continue to cloud our judgement of reality. Funerals have changed appearance, where there was once genuine mourning and empathy now is rampant superficiality and spitefulness. Isn’t the best place to meet a potential suitor a funeral these days after all? And isn’t the best place to get sloshed the after tears gathering? Just saying folks. Don’t get me started about cremation, which is not much of an option. Not even over-populated cemeteries can convince cash strapped folk otherwise. The local tabloids remain the best option to plead poverty and canvass for a “decent” funeral. The number of people at a funeral is another crucial element for a “memorable” funeral. The more, the better. It has to be so memorable that one remembers that imported mahogany casket with its brass handles. One woman, for example, commented albeit proudly about her child’s coffin not being able to fit through the door because of its size…oh, and what about the scores of people who showed up at the burial, the cars!
A sense of community and socialism have for centuries been etched in African culture. This admirable facet ensured the longevity of people through support structures. Proper support structures and mutual understanding are still as important and can be instrumental in carrying any community forward. Culture, like everything else, need not fade but needs to adapt and evolve. In these tough economic periods, funeral policy insurance brokers and parlours