All I knew about Hon. Okoth was that he was a gentleman.
I first met him in 2013 at the launch of MAP Kibra event in his constituency. His infectious smile said more about him than his words. He later tweeted to thank me for gracing the occasion, thus demonstrating his humility.
I have had many interactions with members of Parliament but none has ever remembered to do what Ken did. He was in his own league.
His demeanour then was that of a great leader who was genuinely cared about the people he represented and had great interested in what the youths from his constituency were doing.
Like all of us, he may have “fallen short of glory” but the way we have laid bare his frailties raises the question of how much speakers at the funeral should reveal when the loved ones of the diseased are still grieving.
Eulogies, even those of criminals, have never exposed the departed in the negative light. It was painful to watch some leaders discuss data relating to Hon. Okoth on TV without his consent, or that of his family. In my view, need data protection laws now than ever before.
His death has been subject of discussion in several fora. From would be friends who controversially eulogised him, to his own wishes to be cremated, to polemical community reactions from Kabondo.
Ken did not deserve any of these shenanigans especially after he boldly announced that he had cancer. Interestingly, only a few of the mourning loudmouths sought to see him in the hour he needed love.
Although different cultures have different ways of celebrating the dead, virtually all of these cultures respect the departed. If anybody had any advice to the departed, they had time to do so when he revealed that he had a terminal disease.
In my view, we have never had any discussion on what should or shouldn’t be said at a funeral. There are indeed many questions that should be guiding us when eulogizing someone.
Does the maxim 'don't speak ill of the dead' still hold in this day and age? Is it fair to the departed to present a truthful account of his/her life when he is no longer around to provide a counter narrative?
Does anyone have a right, constitutional or otherwise, to discuss the affairs of the dead openly? What constitutes a great eulogy?
Funerals are supposed to be great occasions for family, friends and relatives to celebrate the diseased. That is why we often say that we give the dead the funeral befitting their stature.
There are basically two to three common techniques of eulogising someone. The first, mostly from close family members, are lengthy teary tributes focusing on the life history. The other, mostly by friends, and tends to inject humour mostly around shared memories. Relatives often give a combination of life history and shared memories.
It must be acknowledged that in much of the 21st century, funerals have changed owing to the fact that the conception of death and life has been altered by the advent of Christianity and Islam in the continent.
Nevertheless, the practice of religion in Africa is complex. Whilst some communities have abandoned old African religions in favour of “modernity,” others have a dualistic religious practice of the past and present. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying on African religions says:
“In the religions of Africa, life does not end with death, but continues in another realm. The concepts of "life" and "death" are not mutually exclusive concepts, and there are no clear dividing lines between them…… Death does not alter or end the life or the personality of an individual, but only causes a change in its conditions. This is expressed in the concept of "ancestors," people who have died but who continue to "live" in the community and communicate with their families.”
Indeed, when even the most educated men go out to drink liquor, they first feed the ancestors before they partake any of the drink.
Some of the controversies around Hon. Okoth can be seen in light of the conflict between the past and present.
The concept of cremation comes with a sense of finality that leaves no hope that he will be among the ancestors.
In a confused state of affairs and a broader audience beyond family, friends and relatives, the dynamics of delivering a good eulogy within acceptable confines, becomes difficult or is driven by outside circumstances. In such cases the family suffers double jeopardy – the loss of a loved one, compounded by offensive tributes or irrelevant political harangues.
Consider for example, the controversial funeral of musician Aretha Franklin‘s 9-hour “Celebration of Life” where Atlanta pastor Reverend Jasper Williams Jr., was accused of delivering an “offensive and distasteful” eulogy.
Williams, knowing that Ms. Franklin was a single mother, had claimed that single mothers cannot “raise a black boy to become a man.” He further asserted that a household without a father is an “abortion after birth.” Clearly the Reverend was out of order.
The Reverend could have said the same thing in a positive way. Note how Ossie Davis eulogized Malcolm X by raising all the negatives a racist would say but in a positive manner.
Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile. Many will say turn away – away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man – and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle!
Political speeches in funerals are increasingly becoming offensive. They rarely address the bereaved families as they are supposed to. Instead, they focus on audiences that seldom represent the family. It is time to learn what should or should not be said in a funeral.
“Since, therefore, no man is born without faults, and he is esteemed the best whose errors are the least, let the wise man consider everything human as connected with himself for in worldly affairs there is no perfect happiness under heaven.”
Although Welshman Giraldus Cambrensis said these words in the 13th century, they remain true to date.
Those stocking controversy around Ken Okoth’s departure should put the matter to rest.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.