The Observer (Kampala)

22 January 2013

Uganda: The Dead Have No Say As to How We Mourn

Culture teaches us to respect the dead; and as such we rarely say negative things about them.

In fact if one says anything that is considered insensitive, they are seen to be dancing on the deceased person's grave.

I have lost some really close family members and I know how painful it can be; I therefore apologise to the family of late entrepreneur James Mulwana beforehand for using his story to make my point. But then again, Mulwana was no ordinary being; his achievements put him on such a high pedestal that it is impossible to ignore him - even in his death - he was simply larger than life.

In celebrating Mulwana's life though, I was troubled by his will - not that anybody could have done anything to alter it - but I write this in the hope that it will get people thinking when they are penning their wills.

Death is so powerful that when one suffers it, they are revered more than the living. Even if the dead person was a poor beggar, the day he dies, anything he could have said, especially shortly before his demise, is treated as sacred.

Whatever you wished will most probably be done for you. Maybe it is that reverence that makes our Kenyan brothers say 'so and so was promoted to glory' when announcing a death - maybe not. My take is that the dead should have no say on how they are to be mourned. Last year, two elderly women I regarded in high esteem passed on, and the distinguished ladies had also asked that people do not shed any tears at their burials.

One almost succeeded, the other's wish was not entirely respected. But in all fairness, how do you impact people so much and expect them to go about their business normally when you die? Even Jesus wept when he received news that his friend Lazarus had died.

Much as you may consider yourself a simple person, there are people that will be so badly hurt by your death and it is only reasonable to give them a chance to have proper closure when you leave. And sadly, this can only happen if you allow them carry out activities that will give them the satisfaction that you have been given a fair send off.

Much as a person's life is really their life, it is also a gift that God intended to be shared - that is why we thrive on relationships and agree that no man is an island. Our hero Mulwana failed in this regard. Mulwana's will was terribly limiting to those of us that are expressive by nature. Only four people were allocated to give speeches, only four wreaths were laid on his casket and his grave was not built with fancy material like would have been expected.

As The Observer reported, Mulwana had demanded that only four wreaths be laid on his coffin - the president's, the Kabaka's, his family's and his close friends'. He also preferred bark cloth and that the money that could have been spent on an expensive funeral be given to other causes like feeding the poor. There were no portraits on his coffin and his grave was not tiled. But why? I know that whatever happens at a burial is intended to comfort and teach the living a few principles of life.

I personally have learnt many things from eulogies of different people, even those I did not meet in life - Mulwana's will denied Ugandans a chance to learn more about a man they all admired. If it is about the poor, no amount of money will remove them from society. Like the Bible, which the late Mulwana subscribed to, says in Mark 14:7, the poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want..." Therefore, for such a justifiable cause, no person should grumble about the expenses incurred.

Rest in peace James Mulwana, one of Uganda's true heroes; but we would have preferred a better farewell celebration.

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