'After tears' and mourning in the 21st Century

2016-04-12 10:05


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Pretoria - Funerals are regarded as a period during which friends comfort the bereaved, but that narrative is rapidly changing with many now partying and drinking after the burial.

Funerals are now accompanied by 'after tears' where those attending play music and drink alcohol after the burial. People go with cooler boxes filled to the brim and camp chairs along with cars pumping deafening music.

It's a phenomenon that elderly citizens find hard to comprehend, with many saying the tradition of burying their loved ones with dignity has been lost.

Dolly Motau, 63, from Ga-Rankuwa said when she was growing up, funerals carried with them respect, dignity, humility and honour.

"Funerals in our time used to be respected immensely as it was a sad period for the family in question. Neighbours and close friends in the street would be considerate and avoid making noise and disturbing the family during mourning," she said.

"We had rules that everyone knew to obey, like television and radios were not allowed to be switched on... in the home and people would not just come and go as they please in the family's yard."

She said as soon as people heard of a loss in the family, they would avoid making a lot of noise so as to show respect to the family. In addition, the entire family of the deceased would not be allowed to venture out of the homestead after sunset.

Bad luck

"Going out after sunset when there was a death in the family was regarded as bringing even more bad luck on the family. People have become more and more inconsiderate of late under the blanket that it is their right to do what they want and there is very little elderly people can do now," said Motau.

"Doing what people and youth do nowadays would have been shamed before. There was nothing of 'after tears' where people drink alcohol and sit around seemingly having a party as if the family is still not grieving and mourning the loss of their family member."

Motau said the one time there was alcohol involved it would have usually been traditional beer and only drunk a week after the funeral.

The traditional ceremony was called go tlhapisa di garafo (Washing of the spades) where the spades used to dig or cover up the hole of the deceased would be washed and clothes and items of the deceased would be taken out for family members to take a couple of items.

"No elderly person approves of what is done in this day and age during funerals but there is very little we can do as we are often disregarded and called backward," she said.

Just an excuse to drink

Saletta Skosana, 64, from Lindo Park said she did not agree with the idea of celebrating after the funeral. She said the idea of 'after tears' does not bring comfort for the family involved.

"Why not take the alcohol money or money used for these parties and give it to the families as a measure of comfort?' After tears' is just an excuse to drink but it comes with the expense of burdening the families with controlling hooligan behaviour that sometimes happens," she said.

Siphiwe Msiza, 28, said he did not see anything wrong with celebrating the life of a person who had died but agreed that the current generation was going overboard.

"I agree with the idea of celebrating and remembering someone's life but the way it's done currently, it is culturally and morally unacceptable because nowadays it just looks like another excuse to get drunk," he said.

Those views are echoed by Professor Elijah Baloyi from Unisa's Department of Philosophy, Practical and Systematic Theology in the College of Human Sciences. He said the African spirit of Ubuntu promoted dining together, regardless of whether the event was painful or celebratory.

Baloyi said that was why funerals ended with people feasting together when they returned from the cemetery before heading to their homes. In one of his research papers, he argued that funerals and death among Africans brought all people from corners of the country together.

‘Horrible practice’

"Unfortunately, this good kind of togetherness has been hijacked... The traditional funeral never allowed noise or other related issues as we experience them today when the so-called 'after tears' is taking a place.

"Originally, yes, our African Ubuntu allowed us to mourn together, but the hijackers are branding this culture of 'celebrating life' in order to pave their way to this horrible practice," he said.

"Funerals have been evidenced by the kind of quietness which did not even allow a radio to be played in a village. For me we are fast losing our own identity because in Africa death is not celebrated but mourned. It is foreign for Africans to celebrate; hence we do it wrongly because it does not belong to us," he added.

Baloyi said the dignity and sadness that gives the family an opportunity to mourn their loved ones had been derailed by this new culture.

"If we visit our rural villages there are still places where even getting to the graveside is monitored so strictly that no man is allowed to enter without jacket, a sign of respect.

"This has nothing to do with the ancestral worship as some would allude, but it has to do with dignifying the event as well as showing seriousness of the business that takes place there.

"My opinion is that the 'after tears' practice simply degrades the dignity that Africans should uphold in their funerals."

Drinking must be dignified

Baloyi said he was not against people drinking at funerals as long as it was done in a dignified manner.

"It should be remembered that not everyone was allowed to drink even if they had money in Africa. Young people were not allowed to sit and drink with old people in whatever way.

"Again, food and drinks were not allowed to be brewed and cooked in the house of the funeral, meaning that even that even those who drank, it was done not exactly in the funeral house. Fellow Africans, I think the 'after tears' is just trying to change us into something else," he said.

Dr Fraser McNeill, a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Pretoria said the idea of having a gathering of family and friends after a death is generally very common throughout the world - but it takes different forms in different places, and has changed over time.

He said in South Africa and southern Africa more generally, it has long been common practice to have a feast after a funeral.  McNeill said that was important on two fronts, firstly, as a funeral was a quintessential 'rite of passage' the gathering of friends and family serves as a support mechanism for those closest to the deceased. 

Secondly, in many contexts the deceased has now become an ancestor who has more perceived influence over the living than they previously had. In light of this, the gathering serves as a show of solidarity for the new ancestor, and hierarchies will be formed or reinforced at the gathering which will have ritual significance in the future.

Assertions of trust 

"Post-funeral gatherings in the South African context also function as a collective symbolic assertion of trust... there will often be rumours circulating about the potential involvement of other people in the death [accusations of bewitchment, etc].

"Gathering to eat and drink together is the family's way of saying they are innocent of any involvement, and people who eat there are symbolically accepting their plea, whilst people who stay away may be symbolically asserting a lack of trust," said McNeill.

McNeill added that it was difficult to say if 'after tears' was culturally or traditionally acceptable as that would assume there was one set of ideas that define acceptability.

"So the question should be 'acceptable for whom?' Devout Christian elders may frown on the practice whilst other friends and family will happily attend.  But 'culture' and 'tradition' are always changing, so this is a difficult one."

McNeill said for one to understand the 'after tears' phenomenon, one had to look at the connections between burial practices and the collective performance of trust, increasing conspicuous consumption and fluctuating class dynamics in the country.

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