Is it okay to joke about something as complicated as death?
Coping with death has never been easy. Saying goodbye to a loved one and letting them go can leave us a little messed up inside with a bittersweet feeling in our hearts and tears in our eyes. Nobody said it was easy to say that last goodbye. It hurts a lot. But as much as we need to mourn, we also need to let go and move on.
When it comes to sensitive topics like death, humor plays a very particular role. While it can be offensive sometimes, it can also be a very powerful tool. Jokes about death and dark humor can soothe an aching soul and make us feel a little better. At the end of the day, death is inevitable, so we have to learn to deal with it, whether we like it or not.
A great example of humor being used to cope with death is portrayed in Ways of Dying, a novel by Zakes Mda. In a time when government officials and revolutionary “liberators” in South Africa are slaughtering villagers, a man named Toloki supports himself as a travelling "professional mourner" who grieves publicly at strangers’ funerals. During one unusual Christmas Day burial service, he encounters Noria, a woman from his home village, whose young son has been murdered. They form a strange but special bond as they try to teach each other how to live their best life despite the political violence and peril of their environment. Through intense flashbacks telling their separate stories, we get to learn about Toloki's conflictive relationship with his father, Jwara, as well as about Noria's difficulties with her aloof mother as well as the sexual and wanderer life she was driven to in order to leave her village.
All this enlightening story is told through the voice of the community, which becomes one through the sorrow and resilience of Toloki and Noria. Their stories are layered with color and humor despite the violent deaths of people around them, including that of their loved ones. These narrations come together to underscore the insight that has shaped Toloki’s life: “Death lives with us every day. Indeed our ways of dying are our ways of living.”
Ways of Dying is a story about the triumph of human love and creativity of a downtrodden people. What Noria and Toloki learn from all their suffering and the suffering of those around them is that the human spirit continues to glow, for instance, in the artistic creations of Toloki, the figurines so creatively molded by Toloki’s father, Noria's kindness, and in the laughter of children. The creative spirit can rise above poverty and suppression and provide a safe haven for the troubled spirits and bodies of the children of the shantytown where Toloki and Noria live.
The importance behind this text is the way it shows how to create a meaningful life, even in the middle of chaos and death. The story addresses a universal issue, or rather, a human issue: our fear of death, something that’s going to stick around until the end of time. This book inspires us to feel hope even in the darkest times, and to let go of the pain and sorrow that inevitably comes with death.
Moreover, this book reminds us that Death can arrive anywhere, anytime. We can’t know for certain when our time will come, and yet, that’s okay. We are all dying in the end, and there’s not much we can do about that. What we can actually do is learn to be at peace with this fact and not take Death too seriously. Final goodbyes that hurt like hell will arrive unannounced, and at the same time, someone else will also suffer when saying goodbye to us. This is where inner strength, positivity, and resilience come in handy. Just as the novel's protagonists show, even at our deepest “lows” humor and creativity help us learn to enjoy the small things too. Even at the most difficult times, we have to learn how to smile and find peace in our hearts.
So, if at any moment you feel like these topics are just too much for you, give this book a chance. Besides being high-quality literature, the lessons within are far more valuable than what we can imagine. Because sometimes, all we need is a cup of tea, and a good book to keep us company.
Photo credits: Bailey Illustrations
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