Home Education CAN THE DEAD BE HONOURED OR HARMED? – Shalom Daniel




A Critique on African Posthumous Ideology
©Shalom Daniel

To start with, some key words will be lucidly defined;

DEAD (noun): No longer alive/ Deprived of life,

HONOUR (verb): To think of highly, to respect highly; to show respect for.

HARM (verb): To cause injury to another; to hurt; to cause damage to.

Image result for nigerian burial ceremony

Over the years and hitherto, sundry activities have been embarked upon in the bid of honouring the dead, especially those who had notable impacts while they were alive.

Amongst these activities are, the erection of statues and monuments, naming of some institutions, roads, establishments, e.t.c after them (the dead), celebrating their posthumous birthdays…just to honour them.

But some salient questions are,



The profound answer to the above questions would indubitably be negative, rather than affirmative.

Furthermore, in the African traditional belief system, it is believed that if any harm is done to anyone who has a connection with the dead in a specific way, or to some specific relatives of the dead (children, spouses, siblings, parents, e.t.c.), such harm is construed as indirectly inflicted on the dead.

But, another conspicuous question is,

HOW CAN THAT WHICH IS NON-LIVING BE HARMED? For instance, “how can a log of wood be harmed?”

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Kwasi Wiredu of Ghana once argued in his paper titled “How not to Compare Western Philosophy with African Philosophy”, that Africans waste a lot of resources on unproductive ventures.

Some of the areas in which this is done are; burial ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, house warming, naming ceremonies, puberty rites ceremonies, e.t.c. He argued further that some of these resources ought to be channeled into the development of education and infrastructure. In addition, Africans must direct their attention to the development of science and technology.

Kwasi Wiredu’s stance looms very sagacious and profound. Some of the ventures Africans embark on are sheer waste of resources. For instance, spending a lot of money for a burial ceremony of the “remains” of someone who had been embalmed for months. The sad thing is that, when this dead person was probably alive, such amount of money might not have been spent on him/her, why now waste gargantuan resources (time and money) on an unprofitable activity? Or, could such activity be said to be done to honour the dead person? All the delicacies ingested at the ceremony only fills the stomach of the living, the dead is in no way affected. Everything (eating, dancing,singing…) done there (at a burial ceremony) affects only the living, not the dead.

It’s also sardonic that people write/pay tribute to the dead. How does this make sense? How shall the dead read the tribute? Any honour deemed right and appropriate should not be withheld until someone dies, rather such honour should be given to people while they still live. Appreciate people while they still live, not after they are deceased.

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Advocates of the possibility of honouring or harming the dead argued that fortunes of the descendants of the dead may be undermined by our actions or inactions towards them. But it may be argued to the contrary that the fortunes or misfortunes of the descendants of the dead/deceased cannot be conflated with the fortunes or misfortunes of the dead/deceased themselves.

Barbara Baun Lovenbook argues that breaking a promise, destroying someone’s reputation and undermining someone’s achievement can be harmful to one who is alive, even if he never learns of them.

But the fact remains that, a person is distinguishable from  his reputation and attribute. Non-fulfillment of promises made to the dead is felt by the descendants and relatives of the dead, not by the dead themselves.

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Moreover, a believe in posthumous honour or harm might make sense if and only iff the dead is believed to be living a purposeful life in the spirit world, i.e. a believe in the objective and continuous life of the dead, which implies that he/she is still capable of feeling some emotions; emotions of pleasure and pain.

But, how can it be, that the dead is still sentient (capable of feeling pain and pleasure)?

It makes no sense to say that the dead is conscious and yet only the conscious can possibly feel pain or pleasure, or both. This implies that only a conscious being may feel the invasion of his or her interest and may react appropriately.

Also, death may be construed as a harm to the one who died because of his/her interest in longevity, but the very moment a person breathes the last, he/she no longer has any interest which can either be protected, honoured or harmed. The dead man’s life (if there is anything like that, because in the factual sense, the dead no longer has life) cannot be altered in any meaningful way, i.e. the dead cannot lose or gain anything by the action directed against his/her interest or reputation. If it is argued that human life begins and ends here on earth, then a man’s interest cannot survive him, i.e. an interest can not survive the interest bearer; everything ends at death.

Joel Feinberg argued that the harm done to the dead is that of preventing him/her from remaining alive. But the fact still remains that, a harm terminates at the point of death and not even a minisecond after the person has given up the ghost.

Again, in the African traditional belief system, it is not only the living that tries to protect whatever was left behind by the dead, it is believed that these “living-deads” protect their interests by themselves. They might punish anyone who tries to harm those that they left behind. They can equally reward good deeds. They pass instructions to the living on what to do and what not to do. This ideology is so alogical! The belief is a mere traditional fanaticism. The living does not interact with the dead in any empirical or provable way.

Mental functions are destroyed at death, and if this is the case, then it appears that the dead no longer have any mental faculty that might either be lost or retained.

So far as it can be empirically seen, the only existence of man is from birth to death. In the pragmatic sense, there is no verifiable or practically observable existence before birth and after death. For instance, everyone alive on earth is called by a name, the name is being given at birth; if someone bears a name he/she answers that name in the state of existence or during his/her lifetime. Can a person be called by a name and he/she will answer it before his/her birth? Or can a person be called by a name and he/she will answer it after his/her death?

The certain answer to these questions is negative.

If someone is called “#”, it makes sense if and only iff there is a concrete or corporeal entity that can be laid hold on or pointed to as “#”.

In the factual sense, the dead can neither be harmed nor honoured, because the dead has no feeling of pain or pleasure; THE DEAD IS DEAD. Only the living can feel pain when harmed or pleasure when honoured.

Well, statues and monuments could be erected, institutions, streets, buildings, establishments, e.t.c. could be named after the dead for history sake, so that the living may see them as an example to lead a good life, but they (the dead) can never feel any honour; THEY ARE GONE FOREVER!

It just doesn’t make sense to say that the dead (corpse, carcass, bones or dust) can be honoured or harmed.

Honouring or harming the dead can only make sense in the realm of metaphysics and religion, and of course, these two (metaphysics and religion) are, from time immemorial and hitherto apparently areas of much controversies.

©Shalom Daniel

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