Do the dead really need a ‘befitting’ funeral?

By Jideofor Adibe
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This piece was inspired by a recent report that the Anambra State House of Assembly has outlawed ‘expensive’ burial in the State. According to the story, the State House of Assembly passed a bill entitled, ‘Law to Control Burial/Funeral Ceremonial Activities’, in which it outlawed the holding of a funeral for more than a day in the State. In Anambra State, and much of Igboland, funerals can last for three days or even longer, with relatives of the deceased expected to entertain/feed visitors throughout the period. The bill also made it illegal for people to deposit any corpse in a mortuary or any place beyond two months from the date of death (some can leave the dead in mortuary for up to a year to be able to prepare a ‘befitting’ burial). The bill equally prohibited the destruction of property, firing of gunshots, praise singing by minstrels and blocking of roads and streets during burial ceremonies. Other provisions of the bill include prohibition of relatives of the deceased from being subjected to a mourning period of more than one week (it could last anywhere from 3 months to one year in some places) and that the family of the deceased “shall provide food for their kindred, relatives and other sympathizers [only] at their own discretion”.

  1. several parts of Igboland, a certain impression is unwittingly created that a ‘befitting’ burial to the dead is more important than taking proper care of the person while he or she is alive. ‘Befitting’ burial is premised on a certain belief that such a burial not only facilitates an easy transition of the dead to the great world beyond but also helps to ensure that his/her spirit does not hover around to torment his/her relatives. The Igbo also believe that the way you organize the burial of your loved ones is also the way others will organize yours when your time on earth is up. For these, ‘befitting’ burial becomes a multi-million Naira proposition: some borrow from banks or friends /relatives or sell off parcels of land and other belongings in order to live up to their own definition of ‘befitting’ burial and social expectations. The ability to offer grand funeral ceremonies has therefore also become a social marker. For this, it is not unusual to see a man who was not properly taken care of in his life time buried like a royalty, with choice food provided to hundreds or even thousands that grace the occasion and with expensive memorabilia to boot. Some have even buried their dead in imported caskets. Essentially therefore, in parts of Igboland, if you lose a relative, you mourn not just for the loss of the dear one but also for the cost of giving him/her a decent burial.

It must be mentioned that some of the issued addressed by the funeral bill by the Anambra State House of Assembly are already being addressed by the various town unions in Igboland. And though not all communities in the country have a problem of expensive weddings (among Muslims for instance, a dead person is buried within 24 hours of death irrespective of the person’s status or that of his/her family), the bill is an opportunity to interrogate a number of cultural and social practices in the country which are not only wasteful but contribute to the distortion of societal values and the rat race for social acceptance and belongingness:

  1. the country, young men and women who do not have millionaires and politicians as parents or guardians factor the cost of wedding to their decision of when to get married. Just like funerals can leave empty holes in families’ finances, ‘befitting’ wedding has become a ‘natural’ expectation across the country. Those who want to dramatize their social status televise the wedding of their children and distribute expensive gifts during such weddings. Those “without Abraham as their father” borrow or somehow find a way not to expose themselves to ridicule by having an ‘ordinary’ wedding. This unwittingly puts pressure on families – both for those who want to set the pace and others who do not want to be ridiculed. I will suggest that the various local authorities step in with heavy taxes on such expenditures. Certainly if one can organize expensive weddings to show off, that person should also be able to pay a certain amount of tax on such extravagance – at least to help others left behind.

Another cultural practice that also puts pressure on some people and increase the need to be seen to have made it, is the idea of ‘spraying’ money at parties and other social occasions. With praise singers supplying music in some communities during occasions like funerals, weddings and parties, people ‘spray’ the minstrels or the hosts/hostesses in dollars, pounds and other foreign currencies – as a way of separating themselves from the pack of ordinary people who do not spray at all or spray in Naira. I see this as another opportunity for state governments to raise their Internally Generated Revenue instead of burdening small and emerging businesses with multiple taxes and levies.

People who possess certain types of luxury cars or have more than two private cars also deserve to be compelled to help a State’s Internally Revenue Generating efforts. In the days when Mercedes Benz cars were seen as the ultimate symbol of affluence, the late Fela reportedly bought one and used it to carry cassava tubers – in apparent mockery of those who revelled in such ostentation. While the government cannot tell people how to spend their money, it can compel those who show off their affluence to oppress others to contribute a little more to the state coffers.

Churches and mosques which engage in income yielding undertakings such as setting up schools, Universities and banks should be taxed on the profits from such ventures. Similarly umbrella organisations of religious organisations must be able to regulate the activities and claims of its members, including interrogating certain claims to miracles, prophesies and possession of spiritual or healing powers. Like in every profession, there is a need for religious groups to protect vulnerable citizens from being preyed upon by sneaky fraudsters in religious garbs.

The government should also wage war against superstitious beliefs which are quite endemic in the society. While I am not totally discountenancing the existence of esoteric phenomena and occult practices, there is something that does not seem right the way certain beliefs and claims are bandied around in Nigeria. For instance tales of occult practices – of people who could make your manhood disappear simply by shaking your hands, of women who could use ‘love potion’ to ensnare you into marrying them or to do their wishes, of people turning into yam tubers simply from wearing Okada helmets – are a daily staple instilling fears, even paranoia in the hearts of many.

Something happened during the FIFA World Cup tournament in South Africa in 2010 which underlined the difference on how the Western world approached belief in esoteric phenomena and the way Nigerians seem to believe in them: one of the celebrities thrown up by the tournament was the German Octopus Paul. The two-year-old psychic cephalopod achieved global fame for correctly predicting all of Germany’s World Cup matches, including their two defeats by Spain and Serbia. It also successfully tipped Spain to win the World Cup – predictions that reportedly led to the mollusc receiving death threats from Dutch fans as it did from German supporters in the two occasions it successfully predicted German defeats. Surprisingly the owners of the animal, which is now late, announced its retirement just a day after the conclusion of the World Cup.

It is tempting to speculate on what would have happened if Octopus Paul was owned by a Nigerian, and the animal correctly predicted the outcome of one or two matches during the World Cup. It is likely that the owner would paint his face and eye lashes with the weirdest chalk around, build a mysterious grove for the creature (and if possible let decomposing corpses litter the pathway to the shrine) and spend the better part of an hour chanting incantations whenever any customer showed up. Of course he would only enter the shrine with his back, and tell every customer that the octopus was a gift from his great grandfather or from a benevolent Water Mermaid. Were Octopus Paul owned by a Nigerian, we would by now have had priests and worshippers of the poor creature and perhaps the owner would have proclaimed himself a Pastor or the greatest mystic on earth! Additionally, unlike Octopus Paul whose psychic power was apparently limited to predicting football matches, the Nigerian owner would claim the octopus would predict any event, heal any disease and infirmity and even tell you the person ‘blocking’ your success in life. For the Nigerian owner, it would be madness to announce its retirement shortly after the World Cup tournament or admit that it died on October 26 2010.

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