By Prof Ibrahim Bello-Kano
With the rise or advent of the internet, web intertextuality and the social media, death and dying can now be “stylized” as a pastiche of sorts. People have been dying for ages but now, one can live after his or her death, namely in the emerging genre of death-reporting and death-remembrance made possible by WhatsApp and Facebook, for example. Since the advent of Covid-19, when the death narrative coalesced into a vigorous culture of obituary writing, now every social media platform is awash with all kinds of stylistic extrapolations on or about the death of this or that man or woman (but never about children), and how the dead person was a Paragon of Virtue.
If the deceased was a prominent member of the community–a politician or a Professor or some other well-heeled person – there’s usually an outpouring of emotion, normally written, quite strangely, by people who were his classmates, students, colleagues or neighbours, but rarely by the siblings or close family members of the deceased. Why is that?
One reason might well be that the deceased’s friends or admirers would, moved by emotional stirrings or cultural convention, want to tell a good, enriching story about the deceased, whom they would normally cast in their narrations as Helper, Hero, Exceptional Individual, Superman, Gifted, Prometheus, Angel, Giver, Selfless, etc. To paraphrase Louis Aragon, lucidity suddenly comes to a person after their death in the form of texts written in memory of his or her death. It is as if the “vertigo” of the death has to be told in a new stylized discourse by the deceased’s living admirers. In a sense, then, death is a kind of “semiotic progress” for the deceased.
Now the deceased lives again in the emotional, hyperbolic and metaphorical effusions of their “mourning” friends, friends that are instantly turned, on account of the death, into writers of “obituary”, “in memorium”, “death tribute” and the epitaphic”. In some of obituaries and tributes that I read on social media, all written by former students friends, and colleagues, the deceased’s personal life facts were mentioned— what ailment killed them, how they died (in large executive wings of elite hospitals), the number of wives and kids that they left behind (rarely a mention of their wealth left for the inheritors), the many people they had helped along in life, their contributions to the writer’s personal development, their career, and other worldly accomplishments. In some of the “post-mortem” accounts, the deceased had extraordinary, almost divine, powers of prescience (they knew they were dying), were brave, selfless souls (they were willing to do anything for friends and subordinates even on their death bed) and were models or paragons of popularity even in death, as measured by the thousands that attended their funeral.
We may call this “the Gift of Death” because were the deceased to be alive again, even for a miraculous brief time, they would either marvel at, or be embarrassed by, their glorious new transformation (after death) into mythical heroes that, paradoxically, Death, the most terrifying of conditions according to Epicurus, should have shied away from taking away. In a word, “obituary or epitaphic tributes” are, in the last analysis, the mourning benefactee’s angry unforgiving, and hostile epistle to Death itself for taking away the Benefactor, the Friend, or the Now Dead Cult of Veneration. Unfortunately, however, the deceased person, the loved dead person, cannot, by the nature of the permanence of death, read the adulation written for him or her.
Students of Literature would know this as the allied mercilessness of Hyperbole and Irony. The pained and deracinated writer of The tribute, The In memorium, or The Epitaphic is compelled, the sheer weight of loss, to turn the death of his admired dead person into a Bombastic Figure (beyond realistic expectations) and, by the same token, has to say things that were not, and could not have said, in the presence of the admired deceased while he or she were alive. Since it is the death of the beloved, and the attendant loss, that produced the occasion for the tribute or the epitaphic writing in the first place,, we can say, then, that the writing is nothing but a kind of epitaphic pastiche —- the grafting onto a dead body the images of life, vivacity, vitality, exuberance, vigor, excitement, and dexterity that death has now physically and practically annulled in the once-living-but-now-dead person.
So, to conclude, we need to ask why we should or should not write a “death-tribute” or “long obituaries” for or about dead people. Is it for the purpose of “Remembrance of Nice Things Past About the Dead Hero”? Perhaps it’s rather an occasion for the admirer-writer of the dead person to showcase their relationship with the now dead Hero. In sum, when we write effusively about a dead person, our once living hero, we are actually celebrating their passing so that we, too, in their absence, can rise up, be “born again”, so that we may displace them and assume their previous admirable social status.
The secret is out: our Dead Hero must give way for us to be better than him or her. This is why in most societies, the best possible tribute to a dead loved or admired one is complete and utter SILENCE. Only then are we truly bereaved, deeply saddened, and quietly hurt by the death— the permanent and irreversible loss of someone infinitely dear to us. Eloquence, Rhetorical Flourish, and the romantic casting about a death are signs that a death is now an opportunity for the obituary or tribute writer to shine through and thus, by implication, replace the deceased.
The author, aka IBK, is a Professor of Literary Criticism in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Bayero University, Kano