From Paul Osuyi, Asaba
Despite their relatively long contact with western civilisation and considerable degree of sophistication, the people of Asaba, Delta State capital, have continued to hold on tenaciously to their ancient customs and traditions.
The traditional practices of the people have been veritable signposts that not only remind the people of their cultural heritage in modern times but also evoke their consciousness that the light must not be extinguished.
One of such traditional practices is the suspension of burial rituals during the annual traditional festivals of Asaba Kingdom.
From time immemorial, burials have always been put on hold for traditional festivals, which usually commence in mid-August and end in October. This year’s festivities are not different from the practice in the past.
Already, the Asagba-in-Council, a body of elders presided over by the Asagba of Asaba, Prof. Chike Edozien, considered and approved the 2022 Ahaba traditional festival, following the recommendation of the Otu-Ihaza.
The major festivals include Aja, Iwaji, Inneh and Olie Oma. Beginning from August 19, traditional burial rites in the kingdom are prohibited till mid-October when the festivities are expected to have ended.
Speaking on the ban on burials during the period of festivities, the chairman of the governing council of Otu-Ihaza, Obi (Dr.) Benibe Ugboko, said the festivities, which begin with Ikpualu on August 19 are for celebration and not for mourning.
Ugboko said the festive period is a time of happiness, and “burials and mournings are not permitted” hence the suspension of traditional burial rituals in the town until the festivities are over.
“Indeed, during the period of the annual festivals, traditional burial ceremonies are prohibited.”
Throwing more light on it, Obi Emmanuel Eneam said the practice of suspending burials during festivities was instituted by the ancestors, adding that it as old as Asaba Kingdom.
“We can’t be enjoying and at the same time be doing burials. So, starting from August 19, till October, burials are suspended.
“During New Yam festivals, we don’t do any burial in Asabaland. We have to celebrate yam because it is God’s gift to humanity, and when we are doing it, we don’t do any other thing other than celebrating well.
“From time immemorial, Asaba don’t do burials during New Yam festivals, starting on August 19 and ending on October 13 or so. That is Asaba rule, it’s been on,” Eneam said.
He added that nobody dares flout the tradition of Asaba people by doing burials during the festivities.
“Even if you have somebody who died overseas, you keep it until after the festivals. Catholic churches know about this tradition, they come at times to ask me when it is ending so that they can conduct funerals.
“No reverend father would accept burial during the festive period. It is Asaba rule and it has been helping us, we maintain it up till now. We don’t know why our forebears put it that way but we have been keeping it up till now. We hope to keep it up, no one can change it,” he added.
Also, the Okilolo of Asaba Kingdom, Prof. Epiphany Azinge, clarified that the Asagba did not impose the suspension of burials in his personal capacity, adding that what was on display was the tradition of the people.
He said: “His Royal Majesty has made a pronouncement of what has being in place since the days of our ancestors. There comes a time in Asaba when, because of traditional festivities, burial is put on hold for about a month or six weeks to enable all the traditional festivities to take place and, thereafter, burial ceremonies would resume.
“I don’t think six weeks in one year is too much of any other thing but it is for us to respect the tradition of the people at this point in time, and allow other activities to go seamlessly. That is why we are going to put on hold burial, thereafter it will continue.
“We have done this over a period of time. I have known this since I was born, and our people seem to maintain this tradition.
“There might come a time in the future when this can be abolished, when some of these can change. Now it remains our tradition, and we have to uphold it.
“And as the custodian of the customs and traditions of the people of Asaba, the Asagba is only upholding it.”
Azinge, a Papal Knight in the Catholic Church and president-general of Asaba Development Union (ADU), insisted that there was no conflict between the traditional practice and the practice of the Catholic faith, which does not encourage the keeping of corpse for more than two weeks for burial.
“I believe it is a matter of a delicate balance between the Christian belief and the tradition of the people.
“But the burial contemplation is not that you cannot inter, you can inter but there will be no traditional burial rites.
“It is not interment that is the issue, it is traditional burial rites. So, if you want to inter, there is nothing stopping you; there is no conflict.
“For those who are Catholics, there is nothing forbidding you from doing interment but there cannot be a traditional burial during the festive period,” he added.
On the specific burial rites that are suspended, Obi Ugboko explained that the rituals vary depending on the sex, age and social status of the deceased.
“There are different traditional rites when you are burying; it is different for men and for women. It is different for elderly persons and younger persons. So, there are different rites for different categories of individuals. If he is an Obi, it is different; if he is an Nkpalor, it is also different. But those rites would be suspended until after the festivities, which starts from August to about the first week in October.
“During this period, if somebody dies, you can inter but you won’t do any ceremony. After the festive period, you can do the ceremonies, if you choose to do so. If you want to do the things during the ceremonies, you leave the corpse in the mortuary so that after the festivities you can do your burial.
“And that period of time because we have extant laws that guide keeping corpse, if somebody dies, you have two months to do the burial, but if it falls within the festivities, you are given a waiver.
“That is how important it is. When somebody passes on today, the family has 60 days to do the burial but if the persons die within the period of festivities, the family is given a waiver,” Ugboko said.