By VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
“IT is imperative to draw the line between mourning the dead and a fiesta”. This was the submission of Mr. Charles Ezeani, Chairman, Information, Tourism and Culture Committee of the Anambra State House of Assembly while buttressing the need for a proposed law to regulate burial ceremonies in the state in order to curb excessive spending.
Indeed, such a law is overdue not least in this era of recession when we are witnessing galloping inflation and low purchasing power, yet people are still mandated to keep up with traditional burial rites that leave many families indebted, just to give their dead relatives a “befitting burial”; a so-called befitting burial that is absolutely of no benefit to the one who has passed on but only massages the ego of organisers, the surviving relatives. According to Ezeani, the sponsor of the bill, it “seeks to curtail outrageous demands on the families of the deceased by traditions and customs enforced by elders without any consideration for financial capability”, noting that the trend had led to “unhealthy competition among families and friends, each trying by every means to out- shine the other”.
You may have noticed that people from this part of the country do not undertake funeral rites of their departed ones soonest. Rather the corpse is kept in a mortuary pending when they are ready for it. This may take as long as one year. Meanwhile, relatives have to pay for every single day the corpse spends in the cold room. Private mortuaries thrive here. For the poor who cannot afford mortuary costs, the remains of their departed are ‘put underneath the earth’. As the phrase indicates, this is not recognised as a burial by the community. In fact, the literary translation of this is that the deceased is in the “underground refrigerator”. The deceased person is regarded as having been formally buried when all funeral rites are completed. Until then, the wife of the departed one is forbidden from going to the market (buying and selling) and attending meetings, associating with the community more or less. Ditto the direct relations of any deceased persons. Preparations for the funeral ceremonies begin with gathering enough money which more often than not, involves borrowing because of the huge amount to be expended. Among the things required, are renovating the house or compound of the departed, giving it a new look; or building a house where there is no ‘befitting’ one; buying uniform cloth for the deceased’s family and extended family members (uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, children, etc.); killing a cow ‘in honour of the dead’, hiring a live band to entertain guests, including traditional dancers and of course, food for all and sundry.
The burial ceremony lasts for at least a week, beginning from a Thursday. Thursday is a wake-keep, Friday official requiem mass and dust to dust ceremony by the church af- ter which the community’s folks commence their own ‘mourning’ rites, comprising of women’s groups, age-grade groups and other community societies/associations. Saturday is for friends, associates, in-laws and other extended family members.
Sunday is for church thanksgiving by the deceased’s family. As I indicated earlier, the ceremony may last for a month as the family of the departed one continues to receive ‘mourners’ of all genres every other day –various groups, associations and personalities. These sympathisers have to indicate in advance when they would come calling so the family can prepare adequately for them in terms of dances, food and meat. As a mark of a ‘befitting’ burial or better said, to show off, the bereaved family usually kills cows for the many groups that come to sympathise with them. A portion of the cow meat is given to each group/association as a memento. Also, at the thanksgiving mass, the family often presents numerous food gifts and a cow to the church during offertory in order to be highly regarded.
The more the number of cows slaughtered for the burial obsequies, the more esteemed the bereaved family is in the eyes of the community. Indeed, a funeral ceremony in this part of the country has been turned not into an occasion for ‘mourning’ but to a festival of sorts. It is often bandied about that in this part of our country, it is more expensive to bury a departed one than to take care of him/her whilst alive. Although many of the sympathisers, groups and associations do give the bereaved some money, it is often not enough to recoup money spent for the burial ceremonies.
As a matter of fact, most bereaved families would say they are not mourning the departed but celebrating his/her life while on earth. But the burial ceremonies are the same for the one who passed on at the “ripe age of 80” with numerous children and one that departed at an ‘untimely’ time of 40 years, leaving behind one child and wife. Meanwhile, amidst the pervasive jubilation and jollification, the wife may be grieving inwardly with a passive countenance. The question is, to what benefit are these festivities to the departed. We are told that they are meant to bid the departed spirit bye-bye. These celebrations are of little or no value to the departed. Those of us left behind are simply having fun and enjoying ourselves with these celebrations.
By the way, we usually burst out into loud cries at the death of a loved one, relative, etc. Some people even hire professional mourners to do the crying for a fee. Death is a solemn event and there should thus be quietness in the death chamber. What the departed needs from all ‘sympathisers’, ‘mourners’ or ‘celebrants’ is not loud lamentations or unending celebrations but heartfelt fervent payers to the Almighty creator that he/she be guided by His servants in his/ her journey to the luminous realm of joyful activity and eternal peace.
Thus, the funeral rites can be classed into two, namely, the spiritual and social aspect. The spiritual aspect consisting mainly of prayers for the departed is what is of value to the human spirit while the social side is mainly for those of us still living on earth. I believe it is this aspect that the proposed law on burials seeks to regulate. The church had introduced some reforms in the funeral rites of its members by, for example, banning allnight wake-keep.
It also outlawed sumptuous entertainment of its officiating officials at funeral ceremonies, including the choir group, stating that they should only be given drinks (non alcoholic). It can go further by disallowing presentation of cows and other expensive gifts at the thanksgiving services for the departed.
Ikeano writes via [email protected]