LIVE BY DESIGN | Obituaries: When, if ever, is it okay to speak ill of the dead?

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, wrote almost a century ago: “We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done.”

The English aphorisms “of the dead, speak no evil” and “do not speak ill of the dead” derive from the 14th-century translation of the Latin “mortuis nihil nisi bonum”. That Latin phrase is itself a translation of the original statement by Chilon of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, circa 600 BC.

These century-old, cross-cultural aphorisms have held sway. It is generally considered socially inappropriate for the living to speak ill of the dead who cannot defend or justify themselves.

This thought came to mind as I read the diverse media articles and political tributes written about late IFP founder and traditional Zulu prime minister, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal described Buthelezi as a “distinguished statesman”.

IFP President Velenkhosi Hlabisa said: “We’re devasted by this unspeakable loss to the IFP, the Zulu nation, our country and the greater cause of justice and peace.”

UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said Buthelezi had been a custodian of Zulu culture, setting an example for generations not to lose their identity and heritage.

The EFF said Buthelezi had been one of the most notable and influential politicians in South Africa, able to manage the realms of both politics and the Zulu monarchy for decades.

Leaders and speakers of The African Transformation Movement, Build One, ActionSA, and Rise Mzansi all sang from similar hymn sheets, complementing Buthelezi for having lived a life “profoundly consequential on South Africa’s political landscape”.

Among the photo montages of a Buthelezi, mainly smiling for the press, there’s one photo that stands out as different. For our youth or the more elderly with short memories, a photo of a grim-faced Nelson Mandela sitting side by side with Buthelezi in April 1996 is indicative of a Buthelezi quite different to the descriptors chosen above. Indeed, Mondli Makhanya, who was a young reporter in the early 1990s recalls the horror our country experienced three decades ago. He writes: “Today, if you go to the communities in the Vaal, the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Ekurhuleni, Soweto, Kagiso, Clermont, Magabeni and many rural villages, the residents will have vivid memories of what Buthelezi did to them, their loved ones, and their communities.

He reminds us of mass killings by Inkatha warriors. Babies were stabbed with spears while in bed with their mothers. Journalists witnessed the sight of severed limbs, heads separated from torsos and congealed blood thick on the floor. The Inkatha warriors told journalists that they were killing the enemies of the Zulus because the Inkatha leadership had told them the ANC wanted to destroy the Zulu kingdom and strip the king of his powers. Mondli Makhanya suggests that an honest inscription for Buthelezi’s tombstone would be: “Chief apartheid collaborator and mass murderer.”

These were brutal years in our country’s history with much trauma for many, whether directly or indirectly. And while it’s generally true that speaking ill of the dead still carries with it a social stigma, what, to my mind, carries greater weight is the advice of psychologists who tell us it is of importance to survivors of trauma to speak their truth. Their trauma recovery, their grief about lost loved ones, needs their voices to continue to be heard as part of intergenerational trauma recovery.

I’m grateful to Mondli Makhanya for his City Press article. I’m also aware that different truths can coexist, and that may feel uncomfortable. The descriptor “mass murderer” sits side by side with the descriptor “custodian of Zulu culture”.

I recall being told of a father in the military during the apartheid years, on the wrong side of history. My client said she had to reconcile a loving man who gave her gifts of Barbie dolls as the same person who served in Angola.

Obituary writing can be challenging. Whilst most of us will probably adhere to the norms of providing key details about the person’s life – many of us don’t want a sanitised version. Alongside accomplishments, we want stories that remind us of the person’s humanity as well as their flaws.

Let’s end on a lighter note. As I researched articles written about what’s considered okay/not okay to write in an obituary, I came across this anecdote that made me laugh. Singer Bette Davis, on hearing of the death of actress Joan Crawford, with whom she had once been involved with in a love triangle, said: “You should never say anything bad about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *