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.