The president of Zimbabwe cracked a joke when he was commissioning a mortuary in Masvingo. He spoke of the morgue appreciating how cool it was. In short the president was confirming that the mortuary was built to the standard and indeed fit for the purpose it was built for.
BY DR MASIMBA MAVAZA.
Mortuary is a room or building in which dead bodies are kept, for hygienic storage or for examination, until burial or cremation. The bodies will need a below zero temperature in order to see the burial day without decomposing. So it is therefore necessary that those who officially open the mortuary should have the efficiency of tasting the coldness either by putting a hand and get personal approval that it is indeed a mortuary not an oven. The president in a humorous way checked it and proved it.
He cracked a further joke about daring a winner who will be the first to bring a corpse in the new mortuary. It is a well known fact that mortuaries are for the dead. It is further known that once mortuary is built the next thing is to receive the dead. Talking about it must not be a taboo. It is a very normal talk said in a humorous atmosphere.
You can not officially open a mortuary with tears in your eyes. Why would you build it if you are afraid of the dead.
People have a very backward thinking being Afraid of even making a will. They are afraid that they will die. There is a wrong view that any talk about the dead is disrespectful.
Do we owe the dead respect, even if we disagreed with them profoundly, even if we were harmed by them in some way, even if we think that their influence on their times was largely negative, and their legacy damaging?
Yes we respect our dead and the construction of the top of the range mortuary is a sign of such a respect.
But bad taste and false comparisons aside, the question remains: must we respect the newly dead merely in virtue of their being dead? We might be mindful of the grief of family and friends, but still feel that a judgement about the life and legacy of an individual should be an honest one so the opinion about where the dead are to be kept must an honest opinion. Thus for the president to say the mortuary was cool was not out of this world.
The standard trope is: de mortuis nil nisi bonum – “Of the dead say nothing but good”. So the president spoke of the place where the dead are kept.
Why should one not speak as one did when the person was alive? The story of an individual’s life cannot be complete without the truth about what people felt at the moment of summing up, whether it is in mourning or rejoicing. Let us say what we think, and be frank about it: death does not confer privileges. It should be known that the felt quality of life is the final measure of the effect on individuals, and they have a right to their say. If given a choice an individual will chose a proper befitting mortuary.
Respect for the dead is a hangover from a past in which it was believed that the dead might retain some active influence on the living, and that one might re-encounter them either in this life or a putative next life. But no dead will be angered by the high sense of humour bestowed on our president.
President Mnangagwa has opened a new chapter in the state of the dead.
Future historians will be glad that people have begun to speak frankly of their estimations of major figures when they die. Frank opinions explain far more than the massaged and not infrequently hypocritical views expressed in obsequies.
The democratic value of frank expression of opinions about people and public matters should not be hostage to squeamishness or false ideas of respect – let us respect ourselves instead, and say what we truly feel.
Last month the people of China went in their millions to the graves of their ancestors to perform the annual ritual of putting paper money and cakes on them. Honouring the dead is not only a form of remembrance but propitiation. In our more rational age we know that the only thing left of the dead is influence and memory in the minds of the living. It is the influence which is the target of praise or condemnation when summings up are offered. The president’s praise of the mortuary was literally a positive comment on a job well done.
The social media went overdrive lambasting the president , it is common that some jokes will never be understood if one is under a million blankets of paganism.
The Shona culture encourages madzisahwira to joke at funerals. These jokes are meant to alleviate the stress and make lighter the somber mood. But in this case this was not at a funeral and the statement was simply a product of a lighter moment.
Zimbabwe is blessed to have such a humorous president.