All of this might be true in a privileged Western context, but in many societies, funerals offer the only opportunity for resistance to oppression. This was very much the case during apartheid South Africa. With political gatherings, town hall meetings, liberation movements and most political parties banned by an increasingly authoritarian government, funerals were one of the only mass gatherings still permitted by law. And so, the funeral became the place from which the freedom struggle rallied its troops.
This was not in the least bit disrespectful to the deceased, in fact it often carried out their direct wishes. The funeral as a political rally was seen as keeping alive the spirit of the departed. If you've never seen the film Cry Freedom, take a look at the scene from Steve Biko's funeral to get a feel for what these occasions were like:
Of course, this type of scene has not been seen since the fall of apartheid twenty-seven years ago. Until, that is, the events of this week...
Followers of my blog may have noted the corruption that exists within President Jacob Zuma's South Africa, with government influence and cash going to the wealthy Gupta brothers. The main stumbling block to this 'State Capture' was the diligent and incorruptible Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan. Zuma has been trying for over a year to find a way to get Gordhan out of the way - he's even had him arrested on trumped-up charges.
This week, Zuma signalled he was going to simply go for the nuclear option and fire Gordhan without reason. As Gordhan landed in London on Monday for meetings with investors, Zuma summoned him home and it was clear a replacement was being lined up.
Then, on Tuesday, stalwart of the freedom struggle and fellow prisoner of Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, died. As a Muslim, he had to be buried the next day, and his burial service on Wednesday quickly became a political rally against Zuma's plans - the family said Zuma was not welcome, Gordhan was given a standing ovation, former President Kgalema Motlanthe quoted Kathrada's own call for Zuma to step down. Nonetheless, a full state memorial for Kathrada was planned for today in Soweto.
At midnight on Thursday, Zuma fired Gordhan, his deputy and every other minister who had ever disagreed with them. The ANC made clear that it did not support its own President in this. At the same time, the presidency callously cancelled the state memorial for Kathrada, fearing it would be too political.
So, the Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela Foundations held their own memorial today, attended by as diverse a crowd as South Africa has ever seen, and what a gathering it was! Christian prayer opened a Muslim funeral, the Communist Party and business leaders called on one another for support, and the ANC writ large called on its own President to resign.
Many have criticised the funeral as being too political and disrespectful, but it was continuing the debate that 'Uncle Kathy' had himself begun a year ago. Watch, for example, the address by Kathrada's widow, Barbara Hogan:
Perhaps a political funeral was Uncle Kathy's parting gift to South Africa. It certainly engendered a mood of optimism that justice will prevail, and united South African's of all backgrounds in a way that we've not seen since the times of Madiba.