Tell it like it is, or keep quiet to honour the dead

When have we had funerals being just a dignified send-off of a deceased person? When did we have funerals not being used to pass messages to the living or about the deceased? Funerals and memorial services have, since time immemorial, been used as platforms to drive certain narratives, to educate, insult or inform people.

During the struggle we used funerals to strengthen the resolve of the people who were fighting against apartheid and as platforms to deliver political messages. You would go to these funerals and very little would be said about the specific deceased person, but it would be used by the political leaders to further the ends of the struggle against apartheid. This was never frowned upon, in fact it was encouraged as this was one of the few legal opportunities they had to deliver political messages to a crowd of people.

What do you remember about the memorial service of Makhenkesi Stofile? You remember it for the blistering attack Sipho Pityana launched against the then president Jacob Zuma. If I were to ask you what you remember about the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2018 at Orlando Stadium I am sure you would not remember what her daughters said about her or what Barack Obama said or what Fikile Mbalula said, but about that speech by Julius Malema. Malema went to town, told off many people and used the service as a platform to get back at his opponents in the name of Winnie. I didn’t remember anyone frowning upon what Malema said, in fact you all used the phrase ‘Mama give me a sign’ liberally.

Last year at the funeral of Dr Thandi Ndlovu, who was a businesswoman, her friends went up to the podium and spoke about the terrible abuse she suffered during her marriage. They said: “How does it happen that somebody who has gone and fought for so many, someone who can handle and dismantle an AK47, ended up with scars on her back?” asked friend Khanyi Chama. “People said you will tarnish her image,” said Chama, “but you can only say that if you don’t know Dr T. If she could stand up now and jump out of this coffin she would say, ‘Khanyi, I told you, you must tell them.’” I do not remember anyone decrying this act by these women and many actually came out in support of what they did as they felt it was important to take the lid off the gender-based violence and domestic abuse many women suffer.

So when the sister of the famous artistic tombstone manufacturer, Lebohang Khitsane, stood up at his memorial and blurted out that Khitsane’s wife may have been responsible for her brother’s death as she allegedly brought a man into their home, it caused a storm. Rakgadi (meaning Dadobawo or paternal aunt) as she became known, was stopped before she could say any more and South Africans weighed in on the issue.

Some people felt that funerals should be sombre and dignified events where only good things are said about the deceased and no controversial things should be uttered. They added that Rakgadi should have aired her views in a private family meeting and not ‘embarrass and shame’ her sister-in-law by ‘slut shaming’ her so publicly. Bollocks! What is good for the goose is surely good for the gander. If others are allowed to say all the things they said during funerals, why frown upon this one simply because it is unpleasant and disagreeable?

I have always felt that if you are going to give us a sanitised version of the deceased it would be better not to say anything. Why paint a picture of a person that never existed? If the deceased was a thug or a very horrible human being, you either say that or choose not to speak about him at all. If there is nothing nice to say about a person, why lie? How do you honour a person by portraying him as a person he was not?  We should normalise speaking the truth about a person or say nothing at all.

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