Today's kind of funeral serves different goals

Deaths and funerals provide interesting times, spiritually and politically. Funerals present times for getting together and for politicians, the opportunity to capture attention.

There is an element of sadness, but this becomes relative as sadness turns into celebration.

Those who are left behind meet to extol the virtues of the departed and to inter or cremate their remains.

Some speculate on where they departed have gone - heaven or hell. The ancient Egyptians even prayed to Osiris, god of the afterlife, not to be harsh to their loved ones.

At Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s funeral in January 1994, James Orengo, then a political activist, paraphrased William Shakespeare’s version of Mark Antony: “I come to bury… not to praise”, as he castigated Jaramogi’s political rivals.

In South Africa, hardly anyone could better Julius Malema at Winnie Mandela’s funeral in April this year, as he talked about hypocrites and repeatedly used the refrain “Mama, give us a sign”.

Some funerals have bigger meaning to the general public than others.

At times,they become classrooms to teach history and geography, to create memories, or to express displeasure.

These three aspects were evident recently during the funerals of 96-year-old Kenyan matriarch Esther Muya, American musician Aretha Franklin and US Senator John McCain.

Kenyan identity

Ms Muya’s life became an excursion into Kenyan identity formation through history: the founding of the colonial state, administrators, missionaries, Harry Thuku activities, cultural confrontations, the Mau Mau war, independence and Kenya’s post-colonial times.

In contrast, Ms Franklin died relatively young - at 76 - but her audience was global. Known as the Queen of Soul, her funeral attracted music greats of the West as well as Muslim and Christian preachers such as Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, William Berber, and Al Sharpton, and American political heavyweights.

Former US President Bill Clinton, who became an “Aretha groupie” in the rebellious 1960s, was also among them.

Rev Berber noted that in her song ‘Wholly Holy’, Franklin preceded Barack Obama: “We can conquer hate forever, yes we can.” 

Franklin sang at Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and both Obama and former President George W Bush sent their messages of condolences to be read by Rev Sharpton and musician Barbara Streisand.

Obama and Bush were occupied with McCain’s funeral, which was laden with political overtones.

Although both former presidents had competed against, and defeated, McCain for the presidency in 2000 and 2008, the three remained friendly towards each other and formed a kind of triad that was more personal than political.

Current president

This showed when McCain died, having made it clear before that he wanted Bush and Obama at his funeralbut not current President Donald Trump.

It was a first for a president of the United States to be banned from attending the funeral of any person, prominent or not.

The ban was a reflection of the hostility and division that had developed owing to Trump’s perceived trampling of ‘the American way’, which McCain stood for.

While Trump questioned McCain’s Vietnam war-time heroics, Obama praised McCain for being an American hero.

The subsequent division in the US is as deep as that of the 1960s and McCain’s funeral became a public theatre for displaying that internal division.

Funerals are also occasions for assorted preachers to capture the imagination of audiences, for politicians to show concern by making brief appearances, which some also use to make political statements before disappearing to attend other events.

Prof Munene teaches history and international relations at USIU; [email protected]