The coronavirus (COVID-19) disease remains a challenge to the world. This is to the extent that the increasing rate of COVID-19-related deaths is alarming and discomforting. Anyone could be a victim to the virus. My condolences to all bereaved families.
But the challenge really is not about the virus – since we shall die, anyway. The challenge is what will be said of us when we bid an eternal farewell to the material world. Equally true is what we will say about ourselves as we exit this world.
In the last few days, I have been reflecting on the type of eulogy that matters, especially as we constantly face the threats of death. As I think about this, I cast wide the scope of my reading to incorporate the history of eulogy.
Historically, all societies had eulogies to honour the dead with words of praise, love, and remembrance. The eulogies usually addressed the devastating effect of death on a community.
James Daley in his edited book, Great Eulogies Throughout History, observed that while ceremonies honouring the dead go back to humanity’s earliest days, the modern concept of the eulogy traces its history back to the funeral orations (epitaphios logos) of ancient Greece, in which a prominent orator would praise a deceased citizen’s virtues at a public burial ceremony.
Among the Akan, the word for a funeral, "ayie", itself presupposes praise. This is precisely because, as I gathered from my in-depth interview with the paramount chief of Twifo-Heman in the Central Region in 2007, "ayie" is a contraction of "aye yi ye" – to wit, “to praise”. This chimes with the Akan practice of singing the praise of a deceased person.
As part of eulogies, there were/are professional mourners, who sing dirges to praise the dead. One of my maternal grandmothers was one such a professional mourner. She and her team specialised in honouring the dead by recounting the deeds of the dead through dirges.
In a contemporary funeral performance in Ghana, reading tributes has become an important source of recollecting the heroic deeds of the deceased. Through tributes, it is possible to peep into the life of the deceased. It is equally possible to identify the values and achievements of the person.
As tribute reading becomes consolidated in funeral ceremonies in Ghana, some critics have raised concerns about sanitising the dead. For these critics, tributes obscure the real and a balanced account of the dead. They maintain that the practice makes saints of men whose lives were very far from "perfect".
Some maintain that eulogies endorse lies, as relatives and friends construct dead persons as holy. It is said that a pastor once asked his congregation to live well so that he would not be forced to lie at their respective funerals.
As a person, I sometimes see tribute reading to have complex implications. While it is good to highlight the good deeds of the dead, is it not possible that the living may take doing good for granted, since good will be said about them in post-mortem, anyway? In rare occasions, tributes capture the evil deeds of the dead.
Plus or minus, I think tributes help in reinforcing the need to live for others and contribute to building a just society. Certainly, tributes/eulogies are not meant to whitewash some of the fallouts of the deceased, as it is to encourage the living to emulate some of the good deeds the deceased was known for.
While scholars may continue to spill ink over the ontology of human beings – whether we are essentially good or bad – the reality we are faced with is the human proclivity to sin. Solomon, the famous wise king, was right in observing that "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
The above points to the fact that to sin is not a strange thing, though not encouraging. To be flawless as a human being is rather a brutal exception no human being can achieve. More so, to go out of our way to do good is equally worth recounting. In my own understanding, it is the rarity of doing good on the part of human beings that reifies the importance attached to eulogy.
Thus, it is through eulogy that those alive are encouraged to reach beyond their innate fallibility to accomplish important feats. As we recount the good deeds of a deceased person, we chart pathways for those alive to follow. This means that eulogy has a material benefit.
But, gauging from the Christian perspective, eulogy does not affect the state of the dead. While alive, God gives every human being the opportunity to repent and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Good deeds may have a material benefit, but we are NOT saved based on good deeds. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone (John 3:16, Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9).
In Christianity, therefore, salvation in Jesus Christ comes before any merits in doing good. As Christians, we believe that once we are saved by Christ, we feel the need to extend the love of Christ – through doing good – to our neighbours. It is because of this that, since the first advent of Jesus Christ, Christians have led the way in charity services.
As a demonstration of the love of Jesus Christ, Christians have provided social services, including building hospitals and schools across the world. In fact, nearly all the top universities in the world were directly built by Christians or individuals who were inspired by Christian virtues.
In all of this, I am aware of the tiring debates over the motivation for doing good. Philosophers have questioned the reality of altruism – doing good for the sake of it. Many have argued that none does good without a grain of self-interest. Biological evolution theory even goes further to show that selfishness is the heartbeat of life.
The self-centredness that clouds goodness affirms the Christian position that salvation in Christ must be anterior to doing good. Consequently, while scholars may split hairs over the motivation for individuals doing good, it is a truism that, in Christianity, we mostly do good for the sake of the goodness Christ continues to exercise towards us. In fact, Christians are saved for good works, not the inverse (Ephesians 2:10).
Given the difference between doing good for the sake of self-fulfilment and doing good for the sake of Christ’s grace towards Christians, I must restate that doing good merely for the sake of it does not have any salvific effect.
Impliedly, from the Christian perspective, and apart from Christ, no amount of eulogising will save the dead. It is for this reason that I am interested in the tribute that binds. I am interested in the tribute that has eternal significance.
At the end of his mission on earth and as he faced the inevitability of death, the Apostle Paul could boldly craft his own eternally binding eulogy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award on me on that day – and not only me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7-8).
One day, I shall bow out of this world. I will take the exit door. It is either Christ comes to meet me on earth and take me away or I go to meet Him. Either way, this beleaguered world is not my native home.
But what is important is the eulogy I scribble for myself. Will I confidently say I have kept the faith? Can I say I have fought the good fight and finished the race? At the end of my journey, will I count on the Lord's crown or the materiality of my earthly achievements?
The other eulogy that has an eternal value is what Jesus Christ Himself will say about us at the end of our earthly pilgrim. It will be glory and satisfying to hear Jesus say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:23).
As I pilgrim through life; as I advance in registering my support for the human race, my ultimate goal is to have two tributes that have eternal significance. A tribute that I will write about myself, highlighting how much faithfulness I have been to my Christian faith and the world, and the tribute from Jesus Christ.
Dear Lord, give me the courage to stand for the truth of Jesus Christ. Grant me the grace to contribute to fostering human flourishing. But above all, keep me in you till you come or I come to meet you.
Prempeh, Charles ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra