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06.04.2011 Feature Article


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Almost exactly five years ago – 15th April 2006 to be precise, I had an article with the title “Since When Has Mourning Become What It Is Now?” published on Ghanaweb. Since When Has Mourning Become What It Is Now?

I wrote that article while I was still living in Switzerland and only occasionally visiting home at most every other year to spend a maximum of six weeks at a time. Among the funerals I had the misfortune of not only attending but also being an integral part of its organisation was that of my late father. The views expressed in that article which is reproduced hereunder were therefore based only on my observations gathered during those visits and the funerals I attended.

Having returned home and living here for the past three years and thus having a much clearer insight into the situation and being convinced that what I wrote five years ago is as relevant today as it was then or probably even more I've felt the need to reproduce the article especially in the light of the concerns raised by the Catholic Diocese of Kumasi on the issue lately. For example one new observation I've made which I didn't quite know five years ago is the fact that what used to be a one-week family gathering to discuss funeral arrangements is now a full-fledged funeral celebration with posters, live bands and catering services to match. Now read on:

“Among Ghanaians in general, and the Akans in particular, one event that more than any other, brings the people together is bereavement. And the reason for this is expressed in several of our proverbs which seek to emphasise the inescapability of mortal souls from the icy hands of death.

“For example, we say 'owuo atwede, baako mfo' meaning the ladder of death is not meant for any one person to climb. 'Anamon nsia da ho ma yen' (Six feet is for all of us) or 'Baabi a obi awuo, obi nso nna' (Where your fellow is lying dead is not the right place to enjoy a sleep). The central meaning of all these and many more sayings only point to the fact that indeed 'ofuntum bewu, matatwene nso bewu' (both the 'ofuntum' tree and the 'matatwene' parasite that lives on it will die one day). In other words, everybody will be bereaved some day and die eventually. It therefore makes sense that we support one another in times of bereavement and mourn the dead in solidarity with the bereaved family. Since the beginning of time funerals have been major occasions which bring together not only family members from near and far but also citizens of villages and townships. And especially for people in rural Ghana where even now, birthday and wedding celebrations are virtually unknown, funerals have always been a significant feature of our culture and social life.

“Ghanaians have always had great respect for their dead, in fact to a fault. It doesn't really matter that they were not the best of friends. Once one is dead, the survivor is not expected to exhibit any signs of ill-feeling towards the dead. Added to this is our belief in life after death. Emotions expressed at funerals may appear strange to outsiders but generally, with the exception of a few cases of exaggeration, it is a genuine proof of the attachment we believe exists between the living and the dead. It is my personal observation that Ghanaians are much more emotional about death than Europeans.

“Even in a society like ours where changes don't usually come so easily it is normal that with time, there will unavoidably be changes in some of our cultural practices. In other words, changes are good, and whenever positive, they should be welcome. However, I am of the view that the moment the design of a bicycle is changed so much that it has four, instead of two wheels it can no longer be referred to as a bicycle. Therefore, in the sense that funerals are all about mourning rather than merry making I am of the opinion that judging from what now goes on in Ghana, we have completely lost its meaning. A friend of mine resident abroad recently attended his sister's funeral 20 years after his mother's, and he could simply not believe what he saw. In fact, he couldn't understand what it was all about either. First it was the budget, and then the items on the budget. From the provisional estimates, his sister's funeral was going to cost some 80 million Cedis (GHC80,000,000), an amount which can transform the lives of many people in Ghana!

“With the notable exception of the cost of the coffin the impression he had of the budget was that it was for some party rather than a funeral. Items like catering services, video coverage and two live bands for two days particularly surprised him. He also queried why that expensive glass coffin should be acquired all the way from Kumasi when decent ones were readily available in Sunyani. But as it was to all other questions the answer he was given was: 'Wofa, nowadays, this is how we do it'. What shocked 'Wofa' was that he was aware that it was his regular monthly remittances that had kept his sister going for her final few years. Indeed, that's how things are done in Ghana nowadays 'the way others do it, and not necessarily the way we believe it should be done, and irrespective of whether we have the financial means to do it that way.

“I'm sure any student of Akan traditions and customs would admit that one of the most significant aspects of Akan funeral rites is that mourning and feasting have never been bedfellows. Especially in smaller rural communities no self-respecting adult eats openly during a mourning period. As a matter of fact, it is a normal practice that after a funeral the town crier, with a gong-gong in hand and delivering a 'thank-you' message from no less a personality than the chief, would inform the township that the funeral is officially over and with it, the 'abuada' is also over so people are free to 'take a bath'. Readers may note how a simple message advising the citizens to eat is diplomatically delivered as 'you may now take a bath' to better appreciate the relationship between mourning and eating in the Akan culture. In other words, the open distribution of (cooked) food for all in the heat of mourning has never been part of Akan culture.

Video Coverage of Funerals
“Unfortunately, we live in a country where fashion takes precedence over common sense. The result of this is that simply because someone else did a particular thing is sufficient reason for another to want to do the same thing without comparison of the financial standing of the two. All of a sudden video coverage has now become a familiar item on a funeral budget. It would sure be perfect if thanks to one member of the family who happens to own a video camera some significant aspects of a funeral could be captured for future reference. But it certainly doesn't make sense for as much as the equivalent of one thousand US dollars (US$1,000) to be spent on video coverage of the funeral of a person who might actually have lived longer or whose standard of living could have improved considerably if the amount had been spent on him or her during his or her last days. And in any case, one would have thought that people would be more interested in having a video recording of their parents and loved ones when they were alive than that of their funeral. After all what satisfaction does one gain from watching the video of a funeral as compared to showing a film of your parents to their grandchildren long after they are dead and gone' Therefore, what usually happens is that these expensive funeral videos (now DVDs) may be watched once and hardly ever again! And by the way what happened to the good old photographic image as a souvenir for a loved one' If you cared to ask you would be told that 'braa, eno de atwa mu' (as for that it's archaic).

Fantastic Coffins and All That Jazz
“I was hoping that the massive world-wide TV broadcast of the funeral of Pope John Paul II would teach Ghanaians a few lessons about coffins and funerals devoid of pomp and pageantry. There we were with the remains of one of the most powerful personalities in the world in the most modestly designed coffin imaginable shown to a world-wide audience. Years to come our grandchildren who may so desire could go to the Vatican and see where the remains of the Pontiff are being kept. On the other hand only a few cemeteries in Ghana would one be able to trace the resting place of a loved one buried some 20 years ago. Yet we find it fashionable to spend up to $1,000 and more on coffins which get dumped in 'nsamanpomu' (the place of the ghosts) where we may never visit again.

“Meanwhile, in recent times a very disturbing trend has developed about the use of expensive coffins. People are intentionally destroying expensive coffins after depositing them in the grave so as to ensure that they would not be stolen! I find it unpardonable that a normal human being could contemplate, let alone voluntarily desecrate the final resting place of his loved one. Yet this devilish act could conveniently have been avoided by simply using a modest coffin. As I was saying, the Vatican could have chosen, and had the means, to bury the Pope in a golden coffin without the least worry about it being stolen. However, as a classic example of humility and modesty, they chose to bury him in a simple coffin which could be made by any village carpenter in Ghana. But instead of emulating this gesture of humility, in the face of all the poverty we always complain about, the halleluiah-screaming, 'all-night' Christian Ghanaian will go to any length to spend a fortune on the most expensive coffin only to turn round to complain about high school fees.

“Let readers recall the splendid environments of St. Peter's Square in the Vatican where the Pope's funeral was held and compare that with the impoverished surroundings of dilapidated school blocks and dusty school playing grounds (mind you, they were once covered with green grass) where most of our funerals are held and make their own conclusion as to where among the two a display of affluence might be justified, if ever at all for a funeral. Another new fashion that has recently emerged is the engagement of the services of 'professional' undertakers at fantastic costs. Until recently preparing the body to be laid in state was conveniently taken care of from within the extended family. Now even beds are provided by undertakers. I do not know where else but Ghana that the clothes of a dead body lying in state would be changed several times as if it is participating in a fashion show. And all that just to impress people whose usual response to 'how's life'? is 'ohia ne nkwankom' (poverty and hunger).

Fashion Show At Funeral?
“Have you ever wondered why persons closely related to the deceased wear mostly rubber sandals popularly known as 'Charlie wote'? Well, as a special sign of respect to the dead it is considered inappropriate to be mourning while in gorgeous dressing. The fashion now is that there are usually three separate 'uniform' cloths - red, black and white specific for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Ladies' funeral clothing which used to be made in the simplest form is now designed as if they are meant for a party. And the souvenir items! They now range from T-shirts bearing some 20-year old photograph of the deceased to key holders and anything under the sun. In other words, exhibitionism at its best and all that for the funeral of a parent, brother or sister who probably never received a congratulatory birthday greeting during his/her lifetime!

“It is now common for bodies to be kept in the mortuary for six months or longer to enable dilapidated homes to be renovated or sometimes completely new ones built before burial and funeral. The result is that sometimes you wonder if the body lying in state is indeed that of the deceased person. The practice used to be that the body would be buried as soon as possible and the funeral held at a later date. Now with the excuse that we want the funeral to be 'grand' the body can stay in the mortuary for as long as it takes people to raise funds for a 'grand funeral'. In the event, we may end up spending more money on keeping the body in the mortuary than what might have been needed to prolong his/her life.

The Contribution of 'Burgers'
“Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that the astronomical cost of funerals can be blamed squarely on our brothers and sisters living outside the country. This is very sad. The irony is that quite contrary to popular opinion at home many Ghanaians living abroad do struggle to make ends meet. Most of them are usually constrained from visiting home as regularly as they would have wished to owing to financial difficulties. Yet for the sole purpose of trying to impress they would go to every length to spend lavishly on funerals with borrowed money which on their return, they would try to recoup by organising parties under the guise of funerals.

“Any 'neutral' person would admit that 'ayie' is having a very negative impact on our society and the earlier something was done about it the better. It's bad enough talking about money being wasted, but for people complaining about food, clothing, shelter and children's education among other things to borrow money and throw away on funerals the way we do it is simply immoral, to say the least. And the irony is that we do not really care much about the final resting place of the dead.

The Tomb of Sergeant Adjetey
“Though the 28th February may not be as significant in our history as the 6th March or 1st July it is significant enough for government officials to lay wreaths in commemoration of what occurred in Accra on that day in 1948. In fact, it is significant enough for a road to have been named after it in remembrance of the cold-blooded murder of Sergeant Adjetey and two others by the British Police. I was shocked when courtesy of Ghanaweb, I saw what is said to be the tomb of Sergeant Adjetey right in Accra, La to be specific. To my mind, if the day is significant to be remembered by the nation then it means those whose lives gave meaning to the day do pass as national heroes. But if we as a nation consider what is left of the tomb of Sgt. Adjetey in La as befitting a national hero then we have a long way to go.

“Whereas cemeteries in other parts of the world could pass for a relaxation park in Ghana the usual feeling one gets from our cemeteries is that of fear. No wonder that when we were young we were told that boys who claimed to have magical powers acquired them by visiting the cemetery deep in the night. Not only traditional rulers but also politicians, and especially religious leaders should wage a war against expensive funerals because it is destroying our society. A vigorous campaign should be launched to drum it into the heads of Ghanaians that there are many more positive ways to make our mark in our societies than organising huge parties under the guise of funerals. Nananom can contribute to this by ensuring that expenditure for funerals in their traditional areas, especially those tying their names to the mourners, should not exceed a specified amount. Some have made effort and should be commended.

“Our politicians could contribute to this by refusing to make huge donations. As for the 'anointed' ones they can do so much including direct and sincere condemnation of extravagant funerals by their church members.”

Kwame Twumasi-Fofie
[email protected]