I wrote recently that we need to acknowledge each other’s humanity so that we realise that any – and all – deaths affect us, especially violent ones that come about through the murderous acts of another.
Last week I went to a funeral of a man I did not know. I went to stand in solidarity with his relative, Barry Wittstock, my very close friend – brother really. The deceased was a farmer. He had been murdered. It shouldn’t be relevant but to the extent that it is, Des Krause was white.
My brother Barry, who also preached at the service, dealt right up-front with the massive elephant roaming around the congregation, stating that murder has been a part of the rhythm of life and death since the beginning of time and that we kill people as easily with weapons of mass destruction as with our words. Many in the congregation probably felt like breaking out in the Boer song De la Rey, he said, but admonished: “Get rid of that because we can’t feel that way”.
He is right. We cannot let this absolutely rubbish, racist invective – from any political or racial side – take hold that “they” are out to get “us” and that we must fight back, violently and indiscriminately.
Instead, we must recognise that every act of murder of a farmer or worker, rape of a woman or child, every abuse of an elderly person, takes away something from all of us. Such acts must galvanise us to a deeper commitment to democracy, justice, human rights and respect for all, not sow further division based on self-serving identity markers.
I’m very awkward at funerals. I never know how to express condolences with the bereaved – I end up with a limp handshake or embrace, and a soppy, from-the-corner-of-my-mouth, half-voiced platitude.
And yet, I think a part of me has always loved funerals. A part of me.
Not the part that has had to deal with the pain and the bone-crushing numbness when a loved one has died. Nor the part which has had to arrive on a doorstep or make a call to share news of death. Not the part of me standing, wavering, to speak on behalf of my family, reflecting on a life cut short. Neither that part which has wished many times I could take the place of the one who is gone forever to staunch the hurt felt by those left behind.
I do go to funerals to grieve for the departed one. Sometimes, it’s an act of honour; like when someone dies whom you knew personally and had a high regard for, or even just knew through their public persona. When a social activist was killed in the 1980s, we went to the funeral to honour that individual’s commitment to the struggle. Of course, in that context, it was also an act of defiance, defiance of death and everything that led – and everyone who contributed – to that final silencing.
Importantly, like last week, I go to stand in solidarity with others, grieving for a stranger I never knew except through the loving eyes of another.
(This idea of community galvanised my anger at the Democratic Alliance’s attitude towards Patricia de Lille’s attendance of a service for Mam Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. How have we become so horribly, offensively crass in our behaviour, so unnecessarily politically shrill? Sies! By the same token, I was also angry that Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Athol Trollip was prevented from “paying respect” at the commemoration of the Langa shootings on Human Rights Day this year.)
Often, caught inside a church or temple, my grieving is less about the one being mourned at that moment. It’s a collection of grief for all the losses I’ve ever had. It’s remembering the many people in my own life who have gone before. I grieve the parts no longer inside my body. I grieve the non-material losses – the memories that have faded, seasons never to be repeated, even the impossibly forgotten moments. One death unlocks catharsis on many fronts. Funeral litanies are powerful foci.
My affinity with funeral processes is very much rooted in my socialisation, even my gendered role. At funerals, it’s worth reflecting on who fights, who protects, who tends the sick, mourns and weeps, who washes and binds the dead, digs the grave, bears the corpse, who speaks, who cooks for and feeds the bereaved, who remembers?
It may come as no surprise then that the rites that make “sense” for me are English church ones, rather than southern African indigenous ones. Nor that my own sense of masculinity perks up at quasi-military funerals with their emphasis on rhythmic ritual (that, if nothing else, removes the fear of struggling to do or say the right thing at any required moment). Of course, many will excoriate my apparently long-held militaristic tendencies despite being a life-long proponent (yes) of non-violence.
But how do I ignore the hairs rising up on my skin at the sights, sounds and smells; the tingling throughout my body upon the soul-piercing instruction from a sergeant-major-figure to present arms; the salute of respect by comrades of all ages to the deceased, in whatever form is appropriate given the local and ideological context; the incense; the slow, solemn march behind a pall borne on shoulders; sometimes a full band with instruments lowered and silent, offering only a steady drumbeat; a bugler sounding the last post at the grave; the stiff back, even as you silently choke back the emotion that threatens to embarrass you as it erupts through your body; the final surge of grief of a resounding hymn – “hearts are brave again, and arms are strong” – at once triumphalist and mournful.
These rituals of dying and death constitute an important part of my sense of community. If I wasn’t more circumspect and respectful, I could become a bit of a funeral crasher and not just for good food and ‘after tears’.
But far, far more important than death is life. Especially how we live with each other, how we respect and honour each other, how we allow each other’s living presence in the world to add to our own life like a daily electric shot jolting us out of our social somnolence, our new apartheid. And especially, that we love regardless of who the other is, whatever the age, social circumstance, race and relationship to us.
John Donne understood all this when he wrote that any “death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”.
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