We should stop the false praise for the deceased

Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Winnie Madikizela Mandela

Published Apr 12, 2018


Opinion - Why are bad things not spoken of the dead? 

Why is it we will not hesitate to refer to the ills of others when they are alive but will only stress their good after their death?

The absurdity of speaking only good about dead people, something that I regard as misapplied death etiquette, again occurred to me in the wake of the passing away of Struggle icon and “Mother of the Nation”, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Barely hours after her death, strong debate was being waged in the mainstream and social media whether it was appropriate to make reference to her errors of judgement or only focus on her inspirational spirit and self-sacrifice in the fight for freedom.

I have attended many funerals of some not-so-savoury characters and waited in vain for even the slightest mention of their moral transgressions.

So often speakers who never had anything good to say of someone while he or she was still alive will suddenly be singing their praises at the graveside, while keeping the dark side private and confidential because it is considered the right thing to do.

In life, a fellow could have been a downright scoundrel, a con artist and swindler who cheated everyone he could. 

But the moment he kicks the bucket, he is invested with an instant halo and declared to be a saintly soul by the very people who had been his former detractors.

More baffling is that we are not only enjoined not to speak ill of the dead, but to speak as well of them as it is possible to do.

Yet, if the truth be told, there are many instances when people, including family members, do get some relief when a bad person passes on.

Often obituaries for drug dealers, murderers, child molesters and people who spend all their lives causing severe pain to others, are sugar-coated to make them appear to be saints and are given a massive, undeserved send-off. 

Gang leaders are celebrated as heroes after their demise. 

Frequently, when a gang boss dies, cars are stolen by gang members and burnt in his honour.

Bad people are let off the hook too easily in South Africa.

When the architect of apartheid and prime minister of South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd, was assassinated in Parliament in September 1966, the local media did not go all out to vilify him. I

n defence of the Fourth Estate, I must assert the media during those days had to contend with a minefield of legislation which did not easily condone criticism of the government. 

Hence Verwoerd was spared any serious post mortem denigration.

PW Botha, who was prime minister and president of apartheid South Africa for 11 years, and was regarded as one of the most evil men of the 20th century because of his commitment to state terrorism, war and murder to thwart black majority rule, got away lightly when rigor mortis set in.

Although the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission said he had been responsible for “gross violations of human rights”, there was no nationwide rejoicing at his death in October 2006.

Yet when former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher died in April 2013, there were celebration parties in several cities because her policies saw hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost. 

Many Britons remembered the Iron Lady pouring the country’s blood and treasure into the Falklands War.

Occasionally, an obituary writer will cut close to the bone and tell it as it should be.

I was in London in August 1997 at the time that there was worldwide outpouring of grief over Princess Diana’s fatal car accident. 

I remember that while the majority of the media held her up as the epitomé of everything good and beautiful, one brave British journalist ripped into her as “a spoiled child bride, a sulky wife, a narcissist, and a borderline airhead with zero interest in books, history or tradition”. 

I did not follow whether the hack was lynched by the Princess Diana Fan Club for being unsympathetic.

The media does not have to abide by convention and only write glowingly about the dead. 

A South African journalist who has refused to hero-worship the dead is Chris Barron, an obituary writer.

His obits have always been honest, truthful, and sometimes downright damning.

In reporting deaths, the media should tilt in favour of balance and qualification. 

The record of a person’s life should include the good and bad that they did, more so, in the case of public officials.

When Phoenix taxi owner and self-confessed drug lord Vernon John was shot dead in December 2016 in a drive-by shooting outside his home, the media was justified in denouncing him. 

After all, he will be most remembered for destroying lives through the sale of drugs. 

You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. If you are bad, then you are bad.

The only way to remember Uganda’s fallen president, Idi Amin Dada, is as a bloodthirsty dictator who kept severed heads of political opponents in his refrigerator. 

During his eight-year regime, an estimated 300 000 civilians were massacred. He expelled all Indian and Pakistani citizens in 1972, contributing to the country’s economic decline.

The public must become accustomed to taking the bad with the good.

This newspaper, POST, came in for criticism from some readers two months ago when it reported on two friends who died when the car they were in burst into flames after crashing into a tree on the M4 in Durban. 

Mention was made in the story of the caring, compassionate nature of the men as well as their zest for life and hard work ethic. 

However, readers were not happy that reference was also made to their flamboyant lifestyles which, after all, is what made them so popular.

We humans seem to have a strange sense of sacredness for the dead, akin to the reverence we accord to religious deities. 

This would appear to be a self-proclamation of our weakness as mortals, a sense of respect for that one journey that we are all destined for - the damning journey of no return.

One reason often given for not bad mouthing the dead is that they are unable to defend themselves.

Another reason why it is socially inappropriate to speak anything negative about a deceased person is that when someone dies, the family, close friends and other loved ones are often confused and deeply hurt emotionally. 

To avoid inflicting further pain upon the family and loved ones, one avoids mentioning the wrongdoings the deceased might have done on earth.

Will I say bad things about a bad person at his funeral? I am not sure.

It is important to state factually the deceased’s strengths and weaknesses; one can learn wonderful lessons from both.

Mention of the bad side of a dead person must be done indirectly, like in the form of advice to the mourners not to sin.

Remember that death does not erase bad acts. If you want people to say good things about you when you are gone, do only good things when you are alive. 

Then you will RIP - Rest In Praise.

Shakespeare would beg to disagree. Mark Antony says in Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

* Yogin Devan is a media consultant and social commentator.


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