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23.02.2009 Feature Article

Extravagance for the dead when the living cannot eat

The evolution of funerals from full-blown mourning in Ghana and other African societies to the extravagant merriment marking the transition between death and interment is unfathomable in a country and on a continent where majority of the people are believed to live below the poverty line.

As recently as two decades ago, the bereaved and sympathizers would refuse food and water and turn away from anything considered comfort-offering to public manifestations of loss and great pain, though ephemeral—a few days or couple of weeks.

But that has all changed now. Today funerals across many African societies have been turned into carnivals spanning days and weeks depending on the social standing of the deceased when he or she was alive. Even in poorest of families, a week of planning can herald the grand funeral which spans three days—starting with a wake-keeping on Friday night, burial on Saturday and memorial service on Sunday. Among the upper echelons of African societies time-consuming meetings can take months.

An instant in which a dead chief of the Ga traditional area—the indigenes of the capital of Ghana and its environs—was kept in the morgue for two years, awaiting preparations for the final funeral rites and burial would easily pass as a normal practice.

The essence of this opulence in the midst of poverty and hunger, they say, is to honor the dead who serve as a link between the living, the ancestral world and the gods, with a befitting burial.

As one Sociology Professor at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, jokingly surmised, “even in the graveyard, you can tell by the elegance of the grave who was poor and who was rich in their lifetimes. So excessive display of wealth, something unknown to African societies hitherto, is what is being emphasized during these funerals.” Unlike some bad influences that are attributed to colonial and Western cultures, the source of this transformation is yet unknown.

In a small town of about 10,000 inhabitants, it is not uncommon to come across at least ten different funerals on weekends, attracting hundreds and thousands of family members and sympathizers from across the country. These days with an increase in death rates across the continent—estimated at 600 per day by the UN—as a result of high HIV/AIDS related deaths, one is necessitated to question the wisdom in these unproductive and time-consuming funerals in the name of honoring the dead when millions go to bed on an empty stomach.

Aside the time-consuming nature of these funerals, they leave behind a trail of debt which becomes burden for the living members of the dead man's family.
Though local authorities in some areas have taken up the challenge by enacting by-laws and imposing strictures against extravagant funerals, they just seem not to be abating. An undertaker in this burgeoning enterprise, who wishes to remain anonymous, estimates the economy around funerals in Ghana to run into millions and millions of cedis and is against any impositions.

The question therefore is whether advocacy can work where legal restrictions have failed.

By Prosper Yao Tsikata [[email protected]]

Prosper Yao Tsikata
Prosper Yao Tsikata, © 2009

This author has authored 111 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: ProsperYaoTsikata

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