Dead people are scary. Finish and klaar. There is a scientific reason for this. It is the same as the reason children hate their vegetables. It comes from evolution, handed down from our ancestors and ingrained into our collective wisdom.
Now fearing dead bodies and children hating vegetables have become instinctive.
The reason babies hate their vegetables is because they can’t differentiate them from poisonous plants. Since babies crawl everywhere and love to put everything in their mouths, there is a great danger that they could ingest something harmful.
Babies swallow marbles, smear themselves with paint, drink methylated spirits, but that is because of the untold stupidity of their parents. Nature has done everything possible to shield the young and the ADHDed from danger.
The reason adults fear a dead body is because it could carry contagious diseases. If you found a corpse on the side of the road, you wouldn’t know the cause of death. Touching it could make you sick and you could die.
Nature has put in every reasonable barrier to protect the living. Dogs can digest dirt and vultures can consume carrion.
A good friend runs a mortuary. She is neither a half-empty nor half-full type of person. She believes that if it is in a glass, and is potable, drink it, because life is too short.
She is neither cynical nor optimistic. She laughs all the time and that is how she goes through life.
She laughs at death, she laughs at birth, she laughs with the bereaved, she laughs at the Covid-19 coronavirus statistics that we get every night, saying there are too many people who die at home without being tested. She told of someone who tested positive for coronavirus, but died while waiting for the results.
Sometimes people laugh because it is better than crying. Every corpse has to be wrapped in three body bags, she says. But we have a tradition of taking the corpse home to spend the last night. The coffin is opened for a few hours for the family and friends to view.
It is a layered tradition. First to make sure that it is the correct corpse. No one wants to spend all that funeral money burying the wrong person. It happens. It happened to a former colleague, Jones. He works in the mines and his job is to travel around southern Africa to deliver bad news to the families of dead miners. He has to travel back with a family member who has to positively identify the corpse.
Jones’ dreaded day arrived. The family appointed the nephew of the deceased. There were two corpses that day, one from the Eastern Cape and another from Limpopo.
Some families refuse to take the body of the deceased into the home, especially if the death was caused by an accident.
They believe that bad luck is contagious; it will soon bring another unwelcome death. As bad luck would have it, the Eastern Cape family did not take the body into the house, nor did they open it for viewing. The funeral went ahead. They sent Jones a thank you message and told him that everything had gone well.
On Saturday afternoon, after a scotch or two, Jones received the dreaded call. They had the wrong body in Limpopo, which meant the body in the Eastern Cape was the wrong one, too.
As Jones discovered, exhuming a body is a bureaucratic nightmare, but the tradition that goes with it is even worse.
When Jones asked the nephew how he could get it so wrong, he said he’d not seen a dead body before, but had heard that dead people grow beards.
Families still insist on viewing the corpses of their loved ones, even with the pandemic, my mortician friend says.
The battle against the Covid-19 coronavirus will not be won in the press, but by convincing ordinary people that our long-held traditions must change, too.
Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency