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African viewpoint: In praise of the dead

Military servicemen carry the coffin of Andre Kolingba (Central African Republic's former president)
The axiom not to speak evil of the dead is carried to absurd lengths

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene considers her country's obsession with death.

I have been attending a lot of funerals recently and this has brought back to the fore my morbid fascination with funerals.

Keeping a child in school does not earn you as much status as organising a mega funeral

Even though in the Ghanaian context, "morbid" is hardly the word to use for funerals.

We love funerals here and they are a veritable spectacle better experienced than described.

The attitude towards the dead and funerals would seem to indicate that a dead Ghanaian is worth far more than a live one.

For example, a man is admitted to hospital and he recovers from his ailment. He is discharged but is forced to remain in the hospital because he has no family to pay his hospital bills.

After two weeks the doctor sends a message out the man has died.

The very next day a group of mourners arrive at the hospital, suitably clad in the obligatory black and red clothes, they are the family, they are ready to pay all the bills and arrange for the body to be put in the morgue until burial.

There is no question about there being no money to pay the hospital bills once the man has died.

Thriving business

In another case, a man dies who has lived all his life in a house that is crumbling around him.

Car and chicken coffin [Photo: Nicky Barranger]
A much-loved mother is buried in a coffin shaped like a mother hen, a rich man in a coffin shaped like a Mercedes Benz

His body is kept in the morgue until the house is rehabilitated, a new roof fixed and a fresh coat of paint is put on it.

In nine cases out of 10 when you see a house being painted, it means there is a death in the family.

A live Ghanaian can live in a dilapidated and filthy house, but his dead body can only be laid out in a freshly painted and clean house.

All this takes time and that means the death business is one of the most thriving industries in the country.

Keeping a body in the morgue for three months is not cheap.

The funeral announcements are elaborate affairs and the newspapers and radio and television stations make fortunes.

Take a lonely old lady who has been almost abandoned in the village for the past how many years and been called a witch and often gone hungry. Her death would merit a full-page colour advertisement in the newspapers.

The reality of modern Ghanaian life means that in every family, there are people living in the four corners of the world.

A death would mean a gathering of the clan and would mean intricate negotiations by Ghanaians around the world to get time off from work and to arrange flights.

Foreigners do not understand that we Ghanaians must have a minimum of two weeks to "give a befitting burial" to our dearly departed ones.

You are allowed and indeed, expected to borrow money for funerals but you would not make much headway trying to borrow money to feed your household.

Laptop coffin?

For this is the nation that gave the world the phenomenon of the exotic coffins: a much-loved mother is buried in a coffin shaped like a mother hen, a cocoa farmer is buried in a cocoa pod-shaped coffin, a rich man in a coffin shaped like a Mercedes Benz car.

Coffin maker in Ghana making a whale-shaped casket
Every Ghanaian is a royal once dead

I had thought an old broadcaster would be buried in a microphone shaped coffin until I saw a hip-hop singer buried in one such.

The fact that someone went to bed hungry in the last year of his life does not stop the family from organising a huge feast for mourners when that someone dies.

You might not have many clothes in your life but that does not stop the family getting the most exquisite lace for your shroud.

The textile companies do a roaring trade in specially designed funeral cloths for families.

I am ashamed to admit that funeral cloths currently constitute the larger part of my wardrobe.

A mother would find money to buy a funeral cloth whilst keeping a child out of school for lack of money. Keeping a child in school does not earn you as much status as organising a mega funeral.

In death it would seem every Ghanaian is a royal; just listen to our dirges and when it comes to tributes, in death, all the mean spirited, lazy, spouse abusing people are transformed into the most generous, loving human beings.

We do carry the axiom not to speak evil of the dead to absurd lengths.

So much so, you might yet find this old broadcaster one day being sent off in a laptop-shaped coffin and being spoken of as never having offended anybody in her life.

If that happens, believe me, I will rise from the dead.


Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

The writer has said it all, I have a friend in the UK who is still owing over Three Thousand Pounds on her credit card because she went to give a befitting burial to her relation. But never sent anything to him while he was alive. We have got to be realistic in what we do.
Kingsley Umosen, Coventry, UK.

This is very fact. Being in pharmaceutical product marketing I came across many cases like this in Ghana. Doctors have shown me personally patients who needed our medicine but cant buy as all of their relatives are vanished after depositing them at hospital in critical case and they will appear again after the death. In funeral they will also drink, dance and its like a party for them. Though it is a departure and they want to give good fare well there should be limit on it. Anyhow they have to rethink and it is only time will change them. Other than that I have liked Ghanaian a lot as one of the most friendly ppl in Africa and on globe.
Gaurav, Ahmedabad, India

am very impressed that Elizabeth Ohene has come out with this all important and sensitive topic. Sometimes you will wonder what is said about dead people who did not even bother to take care of their children. My grand mother once said to me Kofi you see people say am not good because i don't allow them to use my backyard as a foot path when i die they will all say nice things about me and it happened. It time we get out of the 'stupid' saying that we should not say bad things about the dead. If i will say nice things about my parents when they die then its because they have seen all three of us through the university and lived up to their responsibilities as good parents and not because they gave birth to us.
kofi, melbourne, australia

I thank God I'm not a Ghanaian. However, we the Muslims don't waste time once somebody dies, we take him to his final resting home. No extravagance talk of misusing the money. Its the Ghanaian culture or rather belief, its up to them to either desist from it or go on with it. but its a bad culture to honour the death at the expense of the living. sorry.
Ahmed Adamu, Abuja, Nigeria

In Jamaica we have what is called "Nine-Nights" when a person dies. No longer a time to mourn but a time to celebrate since the loved one is no longer suffering in life. When friends come they do not come with just condolences they come with food, drink and music; this is after all a celebration. True to its name this celebration lasts nine nights and days with the ninth and final night being the night before the church service. On the ninth night the family prepares the food for all who come. As tradition has is on the ninth night it is believed that the spirit of the deceased passes through the party gathering food and saying goodbye before continuing on to its resting place. Out of all the nights this night is the most revered since it is the end of the celebration. Stories about the deceased and the fondest memories are shared, along with prayers.
Princess, Kingston, Jamaica

Fridays and Saturdays are the most dangerous days to travel the roads in Ghana. As the funeral chasers take alcoholic beverages at each funeral, they get intoxicated and as a result tens of thousands of inebriated Ghanaians drive from funeral to funeral, often causing deadly accidents that result in yet more funerals. At the funeral, the names of donors is being read through the p.a. system and people compete to be the high roller. In the meantime, spouses and children watch helplessly how money they could so well use is being squandered on the funeral. The coffins are undeniably beautiful, though.
Pat Walen, Harderwijk, Netherlands

Unfortunately the article is spot on and I am equally guilty of putting my late mother through the agony of being kept in the morgue for two months. Which on reflection was very cruel considering that the old lady refused to visit the UK because of the cold.

Interestingly however, Ethiopian's appear to have an excellent, no delay burial and funeral system that is fast and economically sensible.

Both Orthodox Christians and Muslim's alike are dispatched to their creator within 24 hours and there is even a system for paying the tiny funeral cost via community contributions.

And definitely funeral fashion is a no-no in the Ethiopian context. It is simple and dignified.

Probably an Ethiopian outreach programme on bereavement is what we need in Ghana.
Richard Oppong, Addis, Ababa

The writer has hit a nerve with me. We must give our folks roses while they are alive and not put them on their graves as one of the old country singers once said. This hilarious behaviour knows no bounds - it is the same with the educated and the illiterate. In our own small ways, we should do something about that!
William Adu-Krow, Honiara, Solomon Islands

I disagree with you Kofi Ellison, you live in the US and probably haven't visited home in a long time, or you probably are a participant to some of these extravagant funerals.

What the writer says is very true and it happens. I thought this funeral absurdity happened only in Nigeria but alas how wrong I was when i moved to Ghana. I bet more funerals than weddings or birthdays are celebrated.

However, another fast growing trend is naming ceremonies. Maybe with this new trend Ghanaians will begin to celebrate more lives instead of deaths.
Funke Zoya A, Helsinki, Finland

I simply want to laugh out loud. this piece has just made start to count the number of funerals i've been to over the years, which ones were well organised and which not. I cant really say if anyone lost out by way of priorities but i would certainly want a good one one day when i'm gone. Funeral insurance comes to mind. I need it cos the amount of beer i've drank at funerals is huge and i cant let my people down. I drank for others so why not for me?
Ronald kotey, Accra ghana

Please, find the answer in the book of ECCLESIASTES. Then respect your culture....
Singleman, CANADA

Here in Zim we experience more or less the same thing. But emphasis seems to be on the price of the coffin and the model of the hearse. For the coffin, anything that falls below a casket is the equivalent of a pauper's burial. To go with the casket, a Mercedes for a hearse suits just fine. But yes, the tentacles of people reach out further when they are gone, for long-lost relatives pitch up when a death has visited the family. And now with so many brothers and sisters living abroad who cannot attend the funeral, a video record of the proceedings is a prerequisite. The camera persons make sure the capture the wailing mourners for you do not know what your cousin in the states is bound to mail to you should they see your public display of grief over the death of their mother.
Massa Mware, Harare, Zimbabwe

Ghanaians just love funerals. Its become a place for socialising and if you are lucky you could meet Mr Right.
charles appiah, accra, Ghana

There are fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves. The African belief that the dead are more powerful than when they alive attest to what the writer has expressed. The spiritual prowess of the departed is the beginning of wisdom, that FEAR that if such befitting ceremony are NOT given the departed would hunt his/her relatives to no avail. But for crying out loud! This is 21st century Africa we should discard this old belief that the dead has spiritual influence on the living. Attention should geared more to the living than the dead.
Isaac Otomewo, Nigeria

I totally agree with the writer of this article. We have the same culture here in Botswana. Funerals are a platform where one can showcase their wealth, fashion and all sorts of things. When someone is living in poverty nobody cares about helping them but when they die, everybody contributes to make the funeral match the standard of others in the neighbourhood.
Bame Piet, Gaborone - Botswana

It is not a Ghanaian or Sub-Sahara African thing. It happens all over the world. People give befitting burials to their loved ones to commemorate their lives. Case in point: Michael Jackson. Some overdo it and as long as there is some money to be made, funeral business will flourish. There are more funeral homes in the USA than all of Africa combined and the cost of a funeral in the USA can feed a Ghanaian family for one whole year!!!
Achiri, Planet Earth

I once raised this topic with a minister in the former President Kufour's administration during my weekly radio talk show and his answer was that nothing can be done and it is part and parcel of our culture. Miss Ohene, I believe you served under the NPP administration, and you did not raise this important issue, why today? I think if some measures were taken during your time in office, at least poverty in the country, could have been reduced. Are you willing to raise it or bring it to the attention of the NDC government for national discussion? I will love it very much.
Prince Tony Abban Brown, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This is perfectly true, we should let the dead burry themselves
Odeneho, london, uk

very nasty, you are all burning in HELL!!!for not showing respect to the deaths.
Natu Cargbo, Galloway, Ohio, USA

This is just a master piece auntie Lizzy,not only has funeral being turned into a social event where people flaunt their wealth when less than one third of that same amount could have been used to careter for the dead relative, indeed a typical Ghanaian will rather strive to secure loan for a dead relation's funeral than going for the same facility to pay for the hospital bill that could have help keep the dead alive. i wonder if the perpetrators of this social crime will understand and put a stop to it is another story altogether. Africa oh When!
kwame Adjetia, kumasi-Ghana

Elizabeth Ohene is indeed one of the greatest story tellers in Africa. About funerals, it is right on the mark. No one can dispute what she narrated. I pray that the BBC keeps her narrations in archives for some of us who would love to be listening and reading his narrations. She is a gift to Africa and I am grateful. I will place Elizabeth with the late Alistair Cook when he used to read his Letter from America every Sunday.
Henry Williams, Fresno, USA

Brilliant and truthful article Elizabeth. Unfortunately, funerals are now a status symbol in Africa. Twenty or thirty years ago this was not the case. The senseless spending does not end with the burial. A year after the funeral another large spend would be expected then 10 years later etc. For my father in law they had a bust of him carved to place on his tomb stone and an elaborate ceremony to erect it which i found mind blowingly bizarre even by Ghanaian standards. However, when placed in the context of ancestor worship which is still the belief system of the majority of Ghanaians despite the foreign religion adopted, one can understand why they would go to any lengths to satisfy the spirits of the dearly departed.
Rhomalia Manners, London

This article is so true and real. In my village, when an old person dies, the number of live cows slaughtered in the funeral determines how powerful and popular the family is. My father's uncle died some years back. My father's uncle, I would say died of hunger. The children are rich but abandoned the poor old man in the village. The moment the news circulated that he was dead, the atmospheres changed. About 200 cows were "murdered"! Ironically, the dead man though wished to have a meal of beef while alive, I guess his ghost would have a taste of those hundreds of cows.
Yomi, Portugal

I thought it is only in Nigeria that this type of nonsense is carried on. It is a shame for us Africans regarding the death better than the living. For once I prefer the Muslim culture as regards burial- once certified dead you head for the grave without wasting much time. Personally I see no reason to waste resources on the dead.
Otene Temple, Jos, Nigeria

Hahaha

My mum often criticize this attitude and has required that when she dies, her funeral should be at the same level/standard as her life has been. So we do our best to treat her well. But of course when that day finally come, you can expect people to show up.
Giles Kisife, Kumbo, Cameroon

This is really true, even in Nigeria. An old man across the street from my house didn't have electricity connected to his ramshackle house while he lived. I didn't even know he had children until his daughter came to the dilapidated house to perform her wedding. The wedding was performed using a rented generator. The old man died sitting in his chair outside the house. Renovation started on the house the next day with electricity from the power grid the same day, what the dead man never had all his life. The only time there uninterrupted power in my neighbourhood in Nigeria, is when there are funeral rites going on. What a misplaced priority!!!!!
Chris Idehen, Atlanta, GA

Elizabeth can not be more truthful than she has already. I've always been under the impression that this phenomena is exclusively found in Igboland Nigeria, where ppl go as far as selling their properties in other to give their family members so called "befitting burial" while the living ones sink deeper into poverty.
Okenwa C., Germany

The Cameroonian musician popularly known as Longue Longue has decried this tendency to respect the dead more than the living. In one of his songs, he clearly states that mourners should not wear him a suit when he dies. He wants people to treat him well now than he is alive rather than wait to do so when he dies.

Growing up in Cameroon, I saw my father go into debt several times in order to conduct what is described as "death celebrations." Some people in the villages have come to see death as their opportunity eat from the bereaved. It is a sad state of affairs that depletes resources rather than create them. Perhaps we are on our way to creating a macabre culture.
David, Waco, Texas

This would be an interesting piece for tourists and the uninitiated in Ghanaian culture if Elizabeth Ohene went on to explain the rationale for these "veritable spectacles." As written, the article conveys the idea of senseless expenditure when a family member dies. Despite appearing in this well known forum, "foreigners" still "will not understand" the activities surrounding death in Ghana if we continue to appeal to the macabre instead of explaining it to them. As such, a particularly striking feature about this piece is Ms Ohene's failure to mention what death means in Ghana's culture, the role of ancestors etc. Had she done so, then perhaps, foreigners would understand why we treat the dead the way we do. Of course, this does not to excuse extravagance in any way. I am sure we could always be more frugal with our budgets for funerals, weddings and outdoorings (foreigners won't know what this is either).
Clifford Campbell, Jamaica.

this is. but i am sorry to say is ghanaian stupidity if not the whole of sub-saharan africa. we have to put a stop to this disgraceful act. for a living being is far more worthwhile than a dead one, we must put a stop to this disgraceful act.
joe ango, herzliya, israel

it is a very sad spectacle to see people spending money on the dead whiles they have relatives alive who can afford 2 meals a day, children in the same family who are not in school because of money to pay fees. We are sick with our priorities upside down, the so called educated elite are the worse offenders. we spend over 4 hours in church eulogising the dead after which it is a drinking spree.
ralph ayisa, monrovia, liberia

It's amazing to see huge amounts of money being spent on funerals. In my culture, children of the dead one are task certain amount as contribution for a befitting burial but while the man was alive, there was never such things as contributing towards his/her welfare. What this writer wrote is very true but a shame not to care for the living but giving colourful honour to the death who cannot see what is taking place, the late man would have appreciated and given his blessing for all the cares in the world. We should have a rethink on how we spend monies at funerals.
Stella Johnson, Lagos, Nigeria

How could it be that these people are giving a lavishly elaborate funerals for persons they had so perniciously neglected and inexcusably uncared for in life? It is ridiculously shameless. These funerals are nothing but ego trips and self-serving. The dead is gone. Never to be seen again. Therefore do your best for the ones you care for while they are here. Not when they are dead.
RAZAK ABBAS, ANNANDALE, VA, USA

I think Elizabeth Ohene exaggerates and how some people accord the proverbial LAST RESPECTS to the dearly departed. Not everyone who dies is accorded the sort of elaborate funeral rites and 'celebrations' that the writer is complaining about.

If someone has lived a successful life, and had provided excellent care for his children, there is absolutely no reason why the children ought not celebrate the father's/mother's passing in a manner befitting the stature of the dearly departed. In such instances, the children had already shown bountiful mercies to the mother/father prior to their passing.

I have visited cemeteries in the USA where people spend tens of thousands of dollars erecting mausoleums to accommodate the dearly departed.

To argue that the money spent on the dead should be used for other things is to grossly misunderstand what contributions the dead provided while alive.

If you expect a shoddy funeral, to each his/her own.

I expect a jolly good celebration complete with all the trappings, when I depart. I have lived a fulfilling life. And in my death I must be rewarded by those who benefitted from my largesse!

Otherwise, I will not rest in peace!!
Kofi Ellison, Washington, DC, USA

Yes, it's very true. I agree with the writer of this article. People are hired to come and cry under a persons funeral. They cry as if they ever knew the one dead but it isn't so. This practice has gone on for years and its not only here in Ghana but other African countries too practice the act and i think its time for we all to stop.
Kojo Sarpong, Accra, Ghana

I have taken a liking to Elizabeth Ohene's reports on different aspects of Ghanaians' life so as to know this people who constitute a great percentage of the teaching staff in the late nineties in primary schools in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

What is most striking is that all aspects of lives so far reported be Elizabeth Ohene is same for what is obtained in Southern and Christian dominated parts of Nigeria. In fact a similar story of how death relatives are buried in Benin city was the focus of a daily about 3 weeks ago.

Did Ghanaian's learn this from her big brother; Nigeria or it is mere coincidence? Please do not copy us on how to (mis)manage oil wealth that you may not be cursed. Else where can we run to that will be home away from home?
Abiye, Port Harcourt Nigeria

Much as I believe that we in Ghana sometimes overdo things when it comes to funerals, it it important also to note that we have a peculiar culture that shows a lot of affection for the two life transition stages: Birth & Death. We believe that death is a transition to the after-life and as such one has to be accorded some dignified farewell so as to be given a proper place in the 'new world'. I however detest spending on the dead while starving the living. We need to balance our priorities.
Abednego Otchere, Kumasi, Ghana

My senior couldn't have put it any better. Ashamed as I ALWAYS am on this subject matter I ask: When will we get our priorities right and also stop being a nation of pretenders from top to bottom?
Ebenezer Ampaabeng, Accra, Ghana

Nicely written, very true.
elisa, Leic

I don't mind when people show their respect to the dead - I have done it myself - but going as far as using your child's school fee to adorn the dead is uncalled for. The living are more important than the dead, therefore they should be the ones with the right to such glorifications.
Nyan C, Charlotte, USA

Good article but similar activities occur in Nigeria and Republic of Ireland.
Hammed Bolaji, Dublin, Ireland

From the A to the Z of Elizabeth's column, I was thinking I was in some regions of Nigeria. This absurd practice is shamefully not only in Ghana but spread beyond borders. I have several of the cases which Elizabeth cited. As a growing schoolboy in Nigeria, I witnessed the slaughtering of a fat cow and as many as 20 goats and countless number of cocks for my grandfather's funeral rites. No houses were rebuilt or repainted but the man's corpse made a month long sejour in the morgue and many uncles and aunts contributed to ma the funeral one in town with canon shots open market-day procession in accordance with local traditions! When I look back to what we did then, I hardly believe myself.
Chidi NWAMADI, Nigerian living in Toulouse, France

This is so true! My mum (Nigerian) has a shop here in London where she sells African material and fabric, and she's always saying how 90% of her Ghanaian customers come to buy material for a funeral back in Ghana. It's only over the last few years a few more buy stuff for weddings and birthdays divisible by 10.
Ola, London, UK



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