Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead

“We should offer condolences mutually.” – Kurugan Fuga (Charter of Manding) Article 10 (circa 1236) Even in present day Gambia; rural Gambia that is, this holds true. A whole village and nearby villages go into mourning, suspending or rescheduling any festive event for a period of time to help the grieving families mourn.

Death is sure to come in the lives of all living beings and for humans, empathy is a key factor to our state of being. Social competence is critical in ensuring we nurture empathy and our societies and traditions are centered on that moral code. Imagine grieving for a child, a parent, a spouse or a dear friend and a few blocks away another family is blasting off music in joyous celebration? They do not have to mourn with you and it certainly is not a crime that people can exercise their freedoms unconcerned about your grief, especially if the deceased was not one they cared for. But what kind of future relations will emerge in that community? How do people live together in peace when they know they do not wish each other well?

That fact, the need to safeguard good community relations and showing care to one’s neighbor is the reason why we are asked to not speak ill of the dead. That moral code was further strengthened with the coming of Islam through a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when he admonished his companions not to speak ill of the dead regardless of their faith.

We are at a stage in our nation’s history when we have to take stock of past injustices and human rights abuses of the past administration; a volatile period in our history. Inadvertently names will be named of people who may no longer be us, people who themselves fell victim to the very system they helped create only to fall out with it and be consumed by it in a most vicious manner. Such people we sympathized with and called for justice on their behalf because our better angels shun injustice no matter who perpetrates it or against whom it was perpetrated.

Respecting the dead; that came up several times after Monday’s testimony by one of the victim of the past regime who lost her husband to vicious torture carried out by the late Daba Marena. But how do we take stock of the past if we are not to mention the bad deeds of those that preceded us in death?

Herein lies another instance of issues being taken out of context or wrongly applied in my opinion. Regardless of how evil a person was in life, they have loved ones who’d wish they had taken a better path but who still love and deeply care about them despite the fact that their relative is less than ideal. At that moment of loss, that moment of sudden onset of grief and the following few days, we need to acknowledge that despite the evil conduct of the deceased in life his relatives will grief for him. So what essentially is being relayed when we are advised against speaking ill of the dead is the recognition that we need to empathize with those grieving and look after them in their moment of grief for their loved one, or at least be sensitive to their feelings at the time of their grief.

Yes, grieving over a loved one is a lifelong process but there are times when the emotions are too raw to be trivialized or ignored, eventually the bereaved family will come to terms with their loss and I believe a long enough time has passed for the relatives of Daba Marena to come to terms with his demise. However, the government he served is under the microscope and all ills will be brought to bare including those commissioned or carried out by him. Some of his actions when revealed will be shameful, they will be disappointing for his family, and they may even get angry at him but we will have to talk about them. People’s actions do not get buried with them.

We learnt of the evil deeds of leaders gone past and the atrocities they committed. Such despots and tyrants span across the political, social, cultural and religious realms. The 111th Surah (chapter) of the Qur’an tells of Abu Lahab one of the villains in the story of Islam, the Pharaoh in the story of Moses was another. Leopold of Belgium was another murderous tyrant at the helm of the Belgian kingdom. Idi Amin, Abacha etc. are all mentioned alongside the ills they committed in life even though they are no longer in life, they and are numerous others like them all evoke ill feelings based on their conduct in life.

Maya Angelou once said; “…people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The families of these perpetrators need to understand that a lot of trauma was inflicted on the nation and without holding them personally responsible, the deeds of their loved ones will be recounted and the nation will react to the sadism they perpetrated. No religious or cultural edict is being violated in my opinion and religious leaders should not attempt to interfere by preaching against such revelation.


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