Funerals are an inevitable sad part of our exit from mother earth.
This exit to another world yonder, confirms human being’s mortality.
This is despite their status, power, influence and any other distinction which one may make.
We are mere visitors, surely. At least we are reminded time and again.
Musicians are disconcerted about death, as expressed in their lyrics. Preachers sermonise about it often, with the hope of reminding us about a “permanent home”, full of happiness!
With death comes the ceremony called the funeral.
It constitutes an important event marking a transition of two stark worlds; that is life and death. You can call it the ultimate exit, without a point of return.
In this vein, funerals constitute a central part of any people’s social, cultural and even religious expressions which are built over time through tradition.
However, despite entrenched traditions, the conduct of funerals and the attendant processes of memorialising the dead is going through rapid transformations, some unprecedented even.
Zimbabwe has been no exception to the emerging changes which have redefined existing century old values of traditional religion, or Christian influences. Or, in other cases religious syncretism, given the tendency to mix the worlds of traditional religion and protocols and Christian values.
The shifting attitudes towards death, the conduct on funerals and the Zimbabwean society’s lackadaisical approach to mourning, can be explained by a number of factors.
Firstly, funerals are no longer perceived sacred, to the same extent of the past!
Years back, death was rare.
Now death is as common as day.
Back in the day, funerals were often adult-only affairs.
Growing up, we would only be told that so and so has passed away. It ended there.
However, as children we were never allowed to attend physically, unless there were compelling reasons for minors to attend. There was fear of death.
Some graveyards, especially in rural areas, were littered with legendary stories of ghosts haunting the living.
This often occurred if the deceased had left mother earth acrimoniously, often from stress-induced causes ranging from marital disputes, murder and other such stuff often bringing untold vengeance to the few living targets.
Over the years, the Zimbabwean funerals or generally the African ones have generally been changed by a number of factors.
In our affluent or even urban settings, the funeral has generally become social gatherings of few sobs and at times merry-making. Nowadays, even flashy outfits are now worn to mark the sombre event. High-end clothes, matching shades and other such stuff which is the mark of sophistication now characterise modern funerals. The kind of stuff, which one sees on a typical funeral scene on a Western movie.
At some funerals nowadays, there are even outriders who are part of the convoy, in scenes reminiscent to the send-offs of Zimbabwe’s national heroes.
The contemporary thought processes have changed the way the Zimbabwean society views death. Nowadays the dead are not “mourned”, they are “celebrated”.
All these undercurrents have crowned the place of funerals, society’s growing casualisation of it through individual emotional and social expressions.
Apart from rural to urban migration, the Zimbabwean scenario of changing funeral perceptions can be attributed to: Western influences, technological forces and diaspora contributions, whether these are direct or otherwise.
Of social media memorialisation
After death occurs, the message is then relayed to relatives, friends and other such acquaintances.
Regardless of the cause of death, there is often an initial solemn expression from those who have received the message. For one who was sick for a very long time, the death is constructed as a “resting place”.
For one who would have passed on after a short illness or even a road traffic accident, there is often an accompanying shock.
Societal expressions are, therefore, measured in line with the deceased’s profile and the nature of their exit from this earth.
The advent of technological forces, especially social media has greatly changed the way Zimbabweans express themselves.
Platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook have been used for the varied memorialisation of the dead. With Twitter, prominent figures have trended, marking the importance and stature which they commanded during their times.
Social media expressions of death include putting the deceased on the status or profile picture, written tributes, short videos, throwback memories and emojis depicting grief.
Positively, social media has increased real time connectivity for transmitting death notices between the urban, rural and at times diaspora constituencies.
In the past, before the advent of social media, especially, the messages were relayed to relatives via radio platforms. This message would, however, take long to reach its intended targets at times.
Despite the commendable agency of social media, it has, however, abetted the imperatives for physical and social interaction which bound the Zimbabwean society’s existence and organisation.
The communitarian organisation of the Zimbabwean villages, which were organised by bloodline or out of social relations, was felt during the mourning processes. In fact, any funeral automatically assumed stately proportions as the whole village would grind to a halt.
This spirit was reflected, especially in high-density areas, as the whole community stood with the bereaved.
However, over time, the olden values have dissipated. There is now a marked resort to individualism, which has been reinforced by the social media.
The interconnectedness has often removed the physical touch and connection which characterised our society.
At times, even those who are closer geographically to the home of the deceased only end by expressing themselves on social media. While our society now trends the message of death with precision, it now lacks the same resolve to organise itself in assisting processes at the funeral.
The olden embraces, which glued our society’s relations in times of happiness and even mourning, has now gone.
Even during the programme, it is quite common to see mourners fiddling with their gadgets, perusing one social media page after another.
Of traditional and pentecostal churches
Apart from propagating spirituality, the church is a social organisation whose conduct is expressed at ceremonies which include funerals.
The shifting expressions and conducts at funerals can be explained by the transformation of the Christian divide in Zimbabwe and generally Africa.
The divide was comprised by the “mainstream churches”, that is, the Methodist, Salvation Army, Seventh Day and Anglican, among others. Then there were African Independent Churches (AIC) which were formed with the intention of breaking away from colonial orthodoxy. The rise of pentecostal formations constitutes a new brand of AICs, which have altered the spiritual and social systems, especially in urban settings.
According to Mayrargue 2008:6 (quoted in Prophets, Profits and The Bible in Zimbabwe, 2013), the new African pentecostalism “covers a disparate collection of movements like “mega churches able to hold thousands or even tens of thousands, of worshippers, and microscopic ones; foreign churches from outside of Africa and local organisations; inter-denominational movements which work together with the whole evangelical movement and more closed ones”.
A defining characteristic of the mainstream churches was its organisation at circuit and community levels. This organisation was felt in fostering brotherhood and sisterhood ties, which were expressed at ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.