When You Are Gone, You Stay Gone.

Funerals are, by nature, sombre affairs. Unless of course, the dearly departed was a social butterfly. In that case, their send-off tends to be a tad less than sombre. People dress up for such send-offs, in their Sunday best too. And forget black, who wants to be caught dead in black at a funeral of a mover and shaker?  Speakers at the memorial even share a joke or two, and those in attendance aren’t too encumbered by grief to stifle their laughter.

The atmosphere itself tells you a lot about the dearly departed, the more outgoing they were, the livelier their send-off. If you don’t identify with any of this it’s ok, you’ve just never been to a South African township funeral. These days an ‘after-tears’ mourners gathering is part of the unscripted programme, with alcohol flowing freely to drown mourners’ tears. So, by-and-large, township funerals are becoming jovial affairs.

This hasn’t always been the case the case though. At the turn of the century, only hushed tones were an acceptable means of communication during funeral proceedings. A glaring stare from an old lady two rows away from you at church was enough to remind you that this isn’t a party but a wake. A ringing cellphone during the proceedings was considered an undoubted sign of disrespect for the dearly departed and the bereaved. Not that this has changed lately, but it’s not uncommon to have people leaving a funeral church service to attend to an incessantly ringing (or is vibrating?) cellphone.

I suppose it’s a bit too much to expect people to give up their lives for two hours for a church service for someone who’s no longer here, and they not coming back anytime soon anyway. The older generation saw this last journey as one that could not be compromised, it had to be given the solemn dignity it deserves. One could not carry on as usual. The tone of one’s voice in the week leading up to the funeral could not simply be as one wished. Tradition ruled. More so on the day than any other time.

The bereaved are almost excused from this solemnness. They can walk upright, they can converse almost normally, after all, they have a funeral to organize. Being the bereaved requires two contradictory things from you in a way. Be sombre enough to look like you have indeed lost a loved one but zealous/busy or strong enough to organize a ‘fitting’ send-off for your loved one. Quite a tough balancing act if you have a small family. Neighbours do chip in, if you yourself was neighborly enough in their hour of need. Otherwise you’ll have to contend with preparing a huge feast for a multitude of mourners, with limited hands and sometimes resources.

I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it. Mark Twain

Mind you, a loss in the family does not excuse your family from the judgemental appraisals that normally follow a celebratory occasion, “it was well-organized”, “the food was good”, “terrible coffin, they should have gone for a casket”,  “terrible programme director”. Really? I suppose in mourning, as in normal life, you are expected to keep up with the Joneses’ as well as maintain good taste and organizational skills, at your lowest emotional point.

Death has become so common people are finding new ways of keeping track of who is or isn’t mourning with them. Whilst in the past financial contributions made by mourners could be discreetly passed onto the elder in the family “mourning room”, now a book is used to capture who made a contribution or how much, a little black book of sorts in a way. The idea of keeping track of who “mourned with you” is in itself an alien culture, because Ubuntu dictates that when one mourns, we all mourn. Yet, records are kept. Just you wait till you lose someone, I will show you. Maybe not as bizarre as it appears, after all, what has our love for money not affected?

It is not uncommon now to see a member of the bereaved family hogging all the ‘limelight’, if you want to call it that. This person normally looks disheveled, hurried and talks a bit loud, for all mourners to hear how hectic the last couple of days have been. They issue curt instructions to whoever is at the receiving end of their endless calls. It’s not unheard of for mourners to overhear this ‘funeral conductor’ settling inheritance disputes whilst organizing the wake. “That woman will not set her foot here, it’s only my brother’s money she’s after.” Which is to say, with all the joviality and after-parties, drama is never far off the programme. Especially if family relations were not strengthened whilst the departed could still walk and talk.

Bizarre as it might sound, an estranged wife has been known to hijack the corpse from the morgue, and if she does so legally, with a court order, the funeral week could create family drama the likes of which is too much for our normally dour funeral processions. ‘Spectators’ might actually turn up at the funeral in the hope of catching some unpaid-for drama.

Picture this. The family patriarch passes on. The known children of the family discover that there was an unknown branch of the family, with a mother and several grown children, the works. The unknown branch of the family decides they cannot remain unknown any longer because you guessed it, there’s an inheritance at stake. If the unknown mother and children have the means and know-how, they can hijack the funeral preparations via legal means. Mourners have been known to have turned up only to be told the funeral is now 500kms away, where parallel funeral preparations were underway, with the unknown family branch in charge.

The right to settle a deceased’s estate seems to be inextricably linked to who buries the corpse. Where the unknown family and the known family are both legally knowledgeable it’s not uncommon to have the departed kept on ice, no pun intended, until the right to the corpse is sorted out. Undignified as this might sound, the unknown family ends up conducting a ‘closed’ funeral, to the exclusion of the known. To hell with a dignified send-off, the right to the deceased’s estate is so much bigger. Who said money was the root of all kinds of evil again? Ah, the good book.

Mind you, the estate might actually turn out to be a mountain of debt, in which case the known widow is left alone to carry the burden of having married a husband with a roving eye.

Amazing how in the old days these scandals seemed to be kept under wraps, at least until the funeral’s gone past. They just appeared much less frequently than they do now. The moves towards a more open society means the hidden and sometimes ugly truth is aired for all to see. I blame it all on the tabloids, not the happenings, but our getting to know the warts-and-all goings on of all these hard to digest issues.  Ironically, African customs point to the mourning period as an open-house period, with the whole house opened to mourners, nothing hidden. The person closest to the departed is normally based in the main house or bedroom for the mourning week, as if to say, ‘see, nothing to hide’.

Today’s open society has brought with it an attitude of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, much to the chagrin of those hankering for the good old days. The after-tears get-together, normally a house or two away from the bereaved family is one result of this ‘in with new’ phenomenon. Ten years ago it was the preserve of the young at heart, now it’s become quite common for the bereaved to actually provide a select few mourners with alcoholic beverages immediately after the wake. Evolution creeps up on society, could it be that South African society is moving towards a more celebratory funeral? Celebratory funeral, an oxymoron?

Whatever turns out to be the case, in the meantime, new expensive outfits, new expensive hairstyles and the more unsavoury figure-hugging mini-dress/skirt seem to be the ‘in-thing’ at township funerals, for now. Perhaps just a fitting reminder to all and sundry that once you depart, you have no control over anything, not who comes to your funeral, not what they will wear, drink, say or do. Once gone, you stay gone.

I suppose you simply have to live the best life you can, and through it hope that once you are gone, your funeral is not remembered for who it attracted, how they were dressed or even more bizarrely(at a party animal’s or gangster’s funerals), if any twerking happened at the gravesite.

16 responses

  1. Brrilliant piece of writing cuz! A good elaboration of this here phenomenon: ” The Township Funeral”


  2. Yes, funerals can vary widely in their tone. I have been to funerals where people quietly wagged their heads as they passed the open coffins of octogenarians. I attended ones equally somber for young mothers.

    The one that I attended that was a lively party was for the elderly father of a mover and shaker. His daughter and her friends were so revved by the hymns they were singing, I thought they were going to fly up to heaven with him! She wasn’t dragged down by his passing; she celebrated his life, knew he was at a better place, and looked forward to reuniting with him there. Nothing somber about that wake, funeral or afterwards. That was a celebration of a life well-lived.

    So, at my father’s funeral, I included laughs in my eulogy. I shared stories about some fun times that he and I had together, and some little-known, amusing facts about him.

    I grew up in a Jewish community. They had a similar “open house” custom to what you wrote about. A friend of mine explained that it was so the grieving family had no time for fresh, raw grief. The people stayed for a week, distracting the mourners, so the grieving family was glad to see the guests go. After a week, the grief was muted by annoyance, and supposedly more bearable.

    Personally, I don’t care what my funeral or burial are like. They are for the people I leave, not me. My 20-year-old daughter might even invite Miley to twerk her heart out while they sing hymns, but I won’t suggest that to her.


    1. Thank you for reading Grace. I’m amazed at the similarities between our customs and Jewish customs, especially the visitors who stay for a week and the “open house”. I also don’t think I care much for what people do at mine but I don’t know about Miley twerking, she needs a little more practice. Hahaha, just kidding, I’d turn in my grave if that happened, what about my dignity? Lol. I doubt it will happen, I would want a celebration too, a dignified one with decently dressed people though.


  3. The strange fascination of funerals. My ex-husband’s Mum was Irish and these sound a lot like Irish funerals, complete with the crowds of visitors and the drinking afterwards. Tasmania is much more conservative and funerals still tend to be very sombre affairs, with everyone wearing black and looking serious. Here, too, there is this whole ‘celebrating life’ thing. I think it can bring comfort at the funeral of an elderly person like the one Grace describes, someone who has had a full life. If it is a young person I can’t help feeling that maybe we should just be allowed to feel sad and not be expected to be so stoic and strong and to ‘just get over it’. Supposedly, you have a mental illness if you still have episodes of feeling desperately upset a couple of years later, but grief doesn’t know about timetables!

    I love this essay, Sydney, it’s funny and sad and thought-provoking all at the same time, like all the best writing should be. P.S. if anyone twerks at my funeral, I WILL be back to haunt them. Big time.


  4. Heidi, thank you for reading. You are just like me, the idea of some scantily-dressed teenager twerking at my funeral unsettles me, deeply so.


  5. Hey Boet,

    I enjoyed reading this piece. It actually took me back to a funeral I attended in Durban a few years ago. I didn’t know the deceased personally but my cousin is married to that family so we were there to support her.

    My first indication that this is no ordinary funeral was a burnt car outside the yard on Saturday morning when we arrived. When the body was being removed from home to church, somebody took out a gun and fired a few shots in the air. At this point I was very unsettled and therefore started asking questions. It turned out we were at a funeral of a member of a local gang who was killed in a shootout with police. Naturally when we got out of the house there was a sizeable police contingent.

    While at church vehicles were doing ‘doughnuts’ outside with an odd gun fire. This continued at the grave site with one more car being torched – a fitting farewell, I was told, to a gang member.

    I understand that the Khutsong vigilante issue of last week where 6 suspected gangsters were killed by the community was sparked by a similar event where a respected church elder got accidentally shot during one such funeral.

    Another craze now is to have political parties at a funeral. Lsdt week in Springs the youth league of a political party stayed outside church and sang struggle songs. Needless to say, their singing drowned the proceedings inside the church.

    Just a different angle but highlights how things have changed.

    Keep up the good work Boet.


    1. Thank you for reading Boet. The idea to do a piece on funerals actually came to me a few moths ago when I attended one where the police had to make their presence felt because of family squabbles. Insults flew and drama was galore. I suppose the finality of our last journey makes people want to sort out everything they couldn’t when we were still around. I’m yet to attend a gangster’s funeral and want to keep it that way, bullets shot into the air have a tendency to come back down having lost none of their fatal powers…


  6. I just remembered a story my mother in law told me years ago – when her Mum died, she and her sister had a little too much to drink at the wake and had a great time sliding down the banisters at the family home and singing loudly. Mum was no longer there to tell them off for misbehaving, They were both in their sixties! It seems there’s no end to the crazy things that can happen at funerals.


    1. Heidi, the idea of two sixty-something-year-olds sliding down banisters in drunken mischiefs makes me laugh out loud. Mom must have been very strict in her days, they just felt so Free At Last!


  7. You do have a wonderful talent for writing on deeply moving subjects interjected with humour, Sydney. Oftentimes I am able to read an article, jot off a response and move on, but your pieces require more reflection.

    I did find similarities between S. African township funerals and the Irish wakes we used to prefer in our family, though times have changed how we mourn and I now rather dread the affairs.

    I chose not to have a funeral for my daughter for this reason. As Grace mentioned, the funerals tend to be about those left behind and quite simply I could not see fit to prioritize the needs of others. Especially given some of the theatrics and one-up-manship I’d witnessed at family events in the years prior. I believed that Erica would not have wanted a funeral so, after confirming with her father and fiance, we decided that a period of reflection would better suit her personality and life.

    Long story short- I heard later on that a memorial was held and that CDs were being distributed. The family outdid themselves in my absence.


  8. Thank you so much for reading Brandee. You are so right, the funeral or wake tends to be about those left behind and in large families, the potential for clashes is huge as egos come into play at a time when everyone is emotionally fragile. I find it so brave that you considered what Erica would have wanted more than what you thought would be best for everyone else.

    Our culture is set in stone, almost. It would be considered a mutiny of sorts to even think of considering an alternative to the standard funeral like the one Grace says happens in Jewish communities.

    I’m so impressed with the CD idea because when my brother Kavani passed on, I asked my siblings and cousins for songs which they felt they thought reflected him best. He loved music, especially Hip-Hop and Rap. He introduced me to Eminem whom I still listen to and enjoy to this day(I have never admitted to this in my Christian circles, lol). Long story short, I had an idea of making a collection of these on CD and distributing it among those closest to him. I never got round to doing it, but I think it’s a wonderful way of dealing with grief and mourning.

    Thanks for your encouragement, it means the world to me😊.


    1. Oh, it was considered a mutiny here too. 🙂

      The CD idea is a nice one, if it reflects the person’s musical preferences or history. I’ve often thought of making a playlist similar to what you wanted to do with your brother’s music. I don’t think that was at all what my family did- I didn’t accept a copy but I understand it reflected the family’s interests and had little to do with Erica. As I expected…

      Always a pleasure to read your work, Sydney. Truly.


      1. I have my brother’s ipod and often listen to his music. It makes me sad but I also feel a little closer to him for a while.


  9. Brilliant. I love whatever you write. I am always the last one to comment because I really love to read what you write and then re-read it again to absorb it, completely. You are so good. Having said that, I want to be remembered by lots of laughter. I don’t like this crying business. I’ll write a will and make it mandatory for people to laugh for 2 minutes on all my silly jokes.

    Honestly, death is the ultimate truth of life. When I am off, I want people to remember me not with a sad smile but a hearty laugh. That way, I will exercise their lungs also 🙂


    1. Thank you for reading, Divya. I think in our heart of hearts that’s what we all want, to be remembered with and through a smile. That would signify a life happily lived.


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