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Opinion | Nov 27, 2018

Undertakers And Issues Of Death And Burial In Ghana: A Plea For Re-Imagination

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File Photo

On November 15, 2018, the news that we should postpone our death, an order from undertakers, hit many of us. The news added to the pathos of humanity and established the brevity of life. While the warning was to announce a strike action by these undertakers, when I read the news, the first question that came to mind was: do I have the power to postpone my death? Throughout history, human beings have attempted to either postpone death or ultimately overcome it. Social scientists and natural scientists have intensified the (re)search to find an antidote to death. More recently, Yuval Noah Harari in his book: “Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow,” has hinted that death eventually would be conquered. His optimism is framed around the assumption that, as man (used in the generic sense) overcomes the three major challenges of life – starvation, diseases, and war/violence – man would have time to think of overcoming the ultimate one – death. And since man has made significant progress against the trio-challenges, Harari believes that the victory over death is in insight.

The thought about death has excited many theories and occupied the minds of many founders of religions and philosophers. Some have dismissed death as mere illusions. Others have pontificated that death leads to extinction. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who founded a school of philosophy called Epicureanism, aptly and sagaciously captured it in his syllogism, “If I am, then death is not. If death is, then I am not.” The question of life after death is also a matter of speculation for many people. In many cultures in Africa, particularly among the Akan of Ghana, death is a transition from the mundane world to the metaphysical world – ‘asamando’ (contraction of ensa man do – endless world). The body of cultic knowledge constructed around ancestor-ship in many cultures is hinged on the continuity of life after death. For evolutionists, death is one of the processes of life. It is considered a natural flow of life, not a tragedy to grieve over. But for Christians, death is not natural. It is an intrusion that takes the wind out of the steam of life. Death is caused by sin. And since Christ solved the problem of death and eventually resurrected from death, many Christians are convinced that death has been conquered.

Whatever your opinion is, it does not take away the fact that death is inevitable. It also does not undermine the certainty of death, since it is the fate of every man. Once you come through the womb, you will exit through the tomb. As a Christian, my conviction is that until my saviour Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of Life and has the antidote to death returns, we are all most likely going to have an appointment with death. But the issue is that death is not extinction as it is transition. At the point of death, we give off our mortality and take on immortality. As we step out of the world, we make our first derby in eternity. However, where we spend eternity is a matter of our decision about Jesus Christ. If we accept Him, we are sure of spending eternal bliss with Him. On the other hand, if we chuck Him, we are sure of living in eternal damnation. But all said, the pain and agony of death is nothing compared to where it leads.

Over the years, the question of how we handle the dead has attracted attention from many people. But the fact is that throughout history, we have recorded different ways of disposing of the dead. In some cultures, like ancient Egypt, the remains of the Pharaoh was embalmed and kept in one of the compartments of the Pyramid. This practice of mummifying the remains of the Pharaoh was informed by the belief in the immortality of the soul, and also reincarnation. Among some Akan groups, chiefs were embalmed and kept in a designated place. Such places are considered sacred and reserved as enclave for rituals. In Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions of Persia, the dead were exposed in the open in order to be preyed on by the birds of the air. There are also allegations of cannibalism among some cultures, which prey on terminally ill people. The Eastern practice of cremation, as a method of disposing of the dead, has also become quite popular in the West and among some groups in Africa.

Religious and ethno-philosophy about the state of the dead – whether there is intermediate state or not – has informed different mortuary rites. In Islam and Judaism, the dead is buried within 24 hours of death. In early Christianity, where Christianity still had strong ties with its Judeo-cultural background, mortuary rites were not different from Jewish custom. Most Christians in the early centuries were buried the same day of their death. Among cultures, like the Massai that did not have a complex ancestral belief, the dead were buried immediately death occurred. The practice was the same among other nomads.

Even so, it appears that for some contemporary Christians there is no hue about how long it should take for one to be buried at the instance of death. In Uganda, where I lived for three years, I observed that among many of the ethnic groups in the country, the longest it took for one to be buried was a week. In other words, whether Muslim or Christian, the dead was buried immediately (for Muslims) or a day or two for the non-Muslim (mostly Christians). Other ethnic groups in the Great Lake regions of East Africa follow similar mortuary and burial practice.

The story is different among many non-Muslim ethnic groups in Ghana. For many non-Muslim ethnic groups, the dead could be deposited in the morgue for months (in extreme cases years) before burial. While this is a discontinuation of traditional practice of burying the dead (apart from chiefs and other important traditional political actors) immediately death occurred, the technology of embalming the death has mixed with social facts – bringing all families together – to inform how long it takes to bury the dead. For some families, keeping the dead in the morgue for months is a mark of social class and exhibition of wealth. Since it is becoming expensive to keep the death in the morgue, the practice of depositing the dead in the morgue for months has become one of the markers of the affluent class in society.

This mental attitude, which informs praxis about burial, has crystallized, following the introduction of commercialized burial places. One modern burial places in Accra that has given additional touch to burial practices is Gethsemane Memorial Garden (at Shiashie). Since 2012, the Garden has contributed to shaping ethno-philosophy about burial practices. The idea of family century or the old practice of burying the dead closer to ancestral homes (or church cemeteries – introduced by European missionaries) and the whole notion of ancestral home has become fluid and nebulous. The creation of Asomdwe Park – where the late president of Ghana, John Evans Atta Mills, was buried – and military cemetery at Burma Camp, where eminent Ghanaians are buried has made Accra a hub for funerary rituals.

There is no hope in sight that many Ghanaians have interest in reducing the embellishment of funerary rites – particularly mortuary rites. But since family resources are dissipated to pay homage to the dead, it is imperative that we reconsider and reimagine the body of rituals built around the dead. The fear that the dead could harm the living, which sustains elegant funerary rituals, needs to be reconsidered. While it will be presumptuous to negate the belief in life after death and to think of it as fleeting illusion, it is important that families cut down on the monies they spend on the dead. This also means that mortuary rites need to be made simple to ease pressure on undertakers.

Death will always occur, but how we prepare the dead for burial is very important. The churches in Ghana must (re)theologize on mortuary rites and encourage families to spend less on the dead. The dead cannot be hallowed at the expense of the living. But more importantly, as Ronald Nash has observed, ‘postmortem judgment is based on premortem conditions.’


Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra

Charles Prempeh
Charles Prempeh, © 2018

This author has authored 122 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: CharlesPrempeh

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