A couple of days ago an elderly black man died. He was 95 years old and had been ill for some time. His family were saddened, although not surprised, by his passing. They did what people do at these times — shed a few tears, shared a few laughs, quietly commiserated with each other — you know the drill. A few friends and neighbours popped in to offer condolences, but most of the old man’s peers had already pre-deceased him, and the younger generation really didn’t know him, or the good (or bad) deeds he wrought done half a century before. The funeral passed off uneventfully. Then the family, along with the friends and neighbours, got on with their lives, only occasionally sparing a thought for the deceased — usually when someone who hadn’t heard of his death chanced to ask after him and they had to explain ‘Oh, didn’t you know? He died a few days/weeks/months/years ago.’
A couple of days ago another elderly black man died. He was also 95 years old and had been ill for some time. His family, similarly, were saddened, although not surprised, by his passing. They weren’t allowed to do what people do at these times — shed a few tears, share a few laughs, quietly commiserate with each other — because this old man was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the whole world wanted in on the act. TV channels rescheduled their programming so that we could all have insights into the great man’s life; politicians who’d previously condemned him suddenly started hypocritically eulogizing him as their hero and inspiration; social media positively throbbed with cries and counter-cries of ‘he was a saint and an example to us all’ versus ‘he was a murdering bastard and a terrorist;’ even Google’s homepage put up a direct link to him to save people having to type his name into the search box. For his family, friends, and neighbours there will be no sudden reminders of his passing from random encounters with people who chance to ask after him and need to be told that he died a while ago — not unless, of course, they specialize in random encounters with hermits and people who’ve inconveniently got themselves trapped down wells or mineshafts for several months and been cut off from all news sources.
As one who usually (not always, but usually) remains emotionally detached from current affairs and the vicissitudes of their protagonists, all this eulogizing and disparaging of the late Mr Mandela leaves me cold. He was old; he died; it happens. I didn’t know the man (I knew of him, of course), nor had I spent years following his career or campaign or whatever it I should call it. I remember some fifteen or so years ago, shortly before he married for the third time, a Radio 4 newsreader referred to his going somewhere with ‘his sweetheart, Graça Machel,’ and I was tickled at the thought of this as her official designation, rather than the more pedestrian ‘partner’ or stuffy ‘consort’. But other than that, I can’t say that I’ve ever really been terribly interested in him — not in him or his terrorist revolutionary activities, long incarceration, or Nobel Prize-winning, apartheid-defeating successes.
Does that shock you? Do you think I should have some more visceral reaction to his villainy or heroism (depending on your point of view)? Well, let me tell you, I think you should have less. You never gave him a second thought when he was alive, did you?
A friend points out that celebrating those who made an exceptional contribution, regardless of their flaws, is a good thing. And I don’t disagree with his view — we are all allowed our personal heroes (and indeed villains). My objection is to the mass hysteria that seems to ensue when someone whom this same friend describes as having ‘effectively been deified’ dies. If he meant nothing to you when he was alive, why are you prostrate with grief now that he’s dead?
Something similar happened when Margaret Thatcher died a few months ago — all that ‘ding, dong, the witch is dead’ nonsense, coming from people who may well have been too young even to remember her but were tapping in to some hereditary vein of hate, left over from their parents’ or even grandparents’ generation. Mrs Thatcher was PM for half my teens and most of my twenties. My mother adored her; my father couldn’t stand her. As with most of their differences of opinion, political or otherwise, I kept out of it as far as possible. I took no interest in Thatcherite policies, or in politics of any kind at that time, although did — and do — support conviction politics rather than the wishy-washiness we’ve had to contend with for the last couple of decades. By the time Baroness T. died, however, she’d lost both her conviction and her cognitive abilities; her once sharp mind had been neutralized by dementia — that had been her punishment, and a more harrowing one than all the opprobrium of the masses ever could have been. All the post-mortem celebrations that she was no more couldn’t touch her, although they could and would wound the sensibilities of her family. ‘Well, they’re a bunch of selfish bastards themselves,’ cried the haters; ‘and they should have disowned her — I would have,’ they added, simplistically, self-righteously, and untruthfully — because no matter how horrid our families are, no matter how much we might wish they were different, very very few of us have what it takes to sever all ties and break free from them. Maybe it’s loyalty, maybe it’s cowardice and a fear of having no one.
That’s of no relevance here, but it does bring me to this: http://www.itv.com/news/2013-02-21/facebook-plea-sees-hundreds-turn-out-for-funeral-of-royal-marine-after-vicar-feared-he-would-be-buried-without-mourners/
James McConnell, a former royal marine died at the start of this year, and staff at the care home where he’d spent the last years of his life thought they would be the only people at his funeral because he had no immediate family to call upon; so they launched a Facebook appeal and 200 people, most of them strangers, turned up to see him interred. I commented at the time that surely it would have been better if just half a dozen of those who came to see him on his way had bothered to go and spend half an hour with him now and again when he was still alive, rather than leaving him languishing family- and friendless in a care home in Hampshire. The internet vilified me for this. They hoped no one would attend my funeral when I die (a curse that leaves me singularly underwhelmed as I really couldn’t care less what people do once I’m gone — it’s not like I’ll be aware of it, any more than Mr McConnell was aware of all the people who attended his funeral). They said I was heartless and that the solidarity shown was the important thing. Yeah, right, of course it was. Wear black, turn up and look sombre at a service and by a graveside, go home, feel virtuous — that’s so much more important and caring than going and letting a lonely old man reminisce at you over a cup of tea once a week and making him feel that he still matters while he’s alive.
Veneration (or its opposite) of the dead is not something we tend to associate with secular, western, first-world life — but it seems we prefer that to appreciating those who, like ourselves, remain extant. So maybe we should consider who it we’re going to get all excited about once they’re dead and then try to be a bit nicer to them, or emulate them more (or less), before they kick the bucket. Because once they’re dead, they’re really not going to appreciate any paltry tribute paid to them by the living and it may be a bit late for us to go about changing our ways.
However, that said, all this excessive Mandela-coverage has at least stopped people banging on about Christmas for a bit — and you can probably guess how I feel about Christmas, can’t you? (Clue: what’s black and white and stripy with a minty taste? And no, it’s not a zebra that’s been swimming in mouthwash.)
Photo by Gonzo Carles << http://www.flickr.com/photos/gonzocarles/3217943944/lightbox/>>