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21.02.2009 Feature Article

'Abrokyire'Palaver: Imported Dollar funerals

The debate about funerals and the general cost involved in burying the dead has raged for a long time and even now with calls for a national funeral conference to discuss the high costs of funerals. I remember a recent news item that suggested that we must consider adopting the Islamic funeral style. Personally I do not see any sense in spending so much money to bury the dead when there are people who could be assisted to honour the memory of the dead, but thankfully that is just my opinion.

I remember attending a funeral some years ago. Then, and I suppose is still the practice, everything was custom-made; from cloth, bottled water embossed with the picture and information about the dead person, food packs and booze, booze, booze. I am told that this is a dignified way of parting with our loved ones. I agree but I also believe there is something called “common sense dignity”.

An African-American professor who plans to resettle in Ghana tells me of the many reasons she has for wanting to enjoy her retirement in the beloved land; she is hoping that when she dies she will be buried with dignity as we do in Ghana. The fact that we could not agree on the definition of dignity shows how subjective it is depending on who does the defining.

Interestingly these elaborate funerals are not limited to the borders of Ghana but have found their way into the United States. It is gradually becoming an unwritten code that when a close family member dies in Ghana and after the funeral is held, close relatives here in the United States have to organize the dollar version. The reason for such duplication is not far fetched. Sometimes these dollar funerals are held ahead of the one in Ghana and any monetary donations raised are then used to organize a 'mammoth' funeral in Ghana. Other times too Ghana goes first and the dollar version follows to help defray any costs incurred.

I attended one such funeral in one of the states not because I knew the deceased or other family members but as is the practice, such events are socialization opportunities for the Ghanaian community. It was a good occasion to see what the latest cloth brands and styles in Ghana were as the ladies showed up to conduct a silent 'who is who' competition.

For the men such gatherings are also the places to showcase how progressive one is in life. Cars bought (on credit?) are paraded and it is amusing to see the confidence with which such proud owners step out of their cars and take carefully calculated steps with their heels barely touching the soil that has been so good to their ego. This is spiced up with the equally proud-looking facial expressions that can only cause a 'kwatrikwa' to immediately embark on a journey to look for which family member has spiritually capped him in a bottle and is impeding his success and taste for all the good things in life.

The dollar chiefs were in full attendance with their retinue. Carrying an air of the proud chieftaincy culture, they walked into the funeral grounds welcomed by appellations and wide applause. For them these occasions may be the only opportunity to salvage their otherwise “deglorified” social status, thanks to the search for the dollar. What else is to be expected when a chief and his subordinates have to clean or work as security guards to make some money? Getting to be called Nana is reassuring for the chief because at least in his house he is a still a Mensah.

After all the introductory rites were done, the booze started flowing and with the accompanying music the fully-imported funeral reached a climax and at this point I realized the possibility of importing Ghana to America.

As I have already indicated, dollar funerals for some people may be a perfect definition of what they see as a dignified send-off for a loved one and I do not bear any grudges. What I have a problem with though is the slow but steady institutionalization of such a practice within the Ghanaian communities in the United States.

It is as though one funeral celebration is no longer enough for the dead.

Gradually it is becoming the norm that anyone who buries a family member in Ghana is expected to come and playback the event here. Meanwhile, it is not everyone who is fortunate enough to inspire people to willingly give off a percentage of their accumulated hourly pay. They end up running into more debts and top it up with increased stress levels of how to settle down financially and move on with their lives.

For now Ghanaian communities appear to enjoy the imported dollar funerals and just as the never-ending debate of made-in-Ghana funerals continue, I am sure this practice will continue for as long as I am not privileged enough to take decisions for people as to what to do with their hard-earned dollar.

By Dot Asare-Kumah [[email protected]]

Dorothy Asare-Kumah
Dorothy Asare-Kumah, © 2009

This author has authored 21 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: DorothyAsareKumah

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