My childhood memories of death and funerals are one long stretch of fear. Each time someone died in the village, we children would be hard put to it by fear. The belief in the village back then was that people who died became evil ‘muo’ which kept wandering about the neighbourhood with the intent of harming any who would see them. And the village folk were never short of spine chilling tales of this or that person who encountered a dead relative and became unconscious. There were even stories of first sons whose dead fathers had slapped them for participating in something during another’s funeral rites that they had denied them or failed to perform during theirs.
It was not just the issue of seeing these dead people that instilled such unnerving fear in us but the supposed manner of their appearance, how they were supposed to look as ‘muo’. Some were said to have more than one head, others would have iroko high legs that raised their massive heads with the single forehead-located eye into the clouds. Long nails that appeared gnawed at would replace the fingers that they had before their transition and the being would be enveloped in a bluish mist.
Each time death occurred in the village, we would move about in clusters, running our errands and doing our assigned chores together. Not because we desired to help each other but out of simple prudence. The overriding need to keep each other’s company — lest the dead ones surface and smite us— bound us together.
The manner of keeping dead bodies in villages where mortuaries were not known of did not ease the fear we felt. Dead people were, as a rule, locked in their bed chambers for a mandatory three days before the burial. A sombre and scary atmosphere was created by the frequent wailings, ululations and dirges enacted by various women groups and ‘umu okpu’, daughters of the soil, throughout the period. Funeral music such as ‘ese’ for men who distinguished themselves in various endeavours while alive and ‘ukoh’ for women who did likewise played at the wee hours of the night, heightening this foreboding of fear.
This, however, is ancient history to the children of my village today. Funerals have evolved into great fanfares and opportune occasions for family reunions and display of wealth. Actually funerals have come of age and “moved to the next level”, as the saying goes.
Each stakeholder in these digital funerals tries his best to outdo and outshine the other or at the very least to put the other down. And not a single thought is spared for the departing one being interred whose ceremony this actually is. Unconsciously, people behaved in consonance with the traditional dictum that “the dead decide what they wish but the living do what they want”.
We have arrived at the point in the conduct of funerals where it has been split into two parts, the interment and the burial, with the latter being the more important. The first part, the interment, consists of the funeral service and the interment, i.e. the “dust to dust”. To this everybody is entitled. The second part, the burial is simply lavish entertainment, and not everyone is entitled to this. Indeed if the entertainment at a funeral is not up to scratch, village folk of this age would derisively say “the man has been interred but there was no burial” as they would mockingly ask the children of one accorded a low key funeral “have you buried your father? Spread your ears on the ground and hear what the entire village is saying about you, anu ofia.” Only when the wining and dining following the interment is stupendous would they agree that the man “was properly buried, they tried, fa anwaka”
Some people see a business opportunity when death occurs in their community. Often the departing ones would be relatives they neither cared for nor bothered about when alive and suffering in penury. In many cases, such relatives would not have died, had they been given the attention when alive. But as soon as these forsaken ones die, the funeral merchants would quickly assume the role of Chief Mourner and send out invitation cards and text messages to his friends and associates informing them of the passing away of his great uncle and urging them to join in according this uncle a befitting funeral. Should this self appointed Chief Mourner be a politician or government top official, then the grandeur of the carnival would be ‘upped’ by several notches since this class of people have the time for such celebrations and the deep pockets to attend in style and make the appropriate cash donations to draw attention to themselves.
Throughout the ceremony, the Chief Mourner would be seated in front, at a table cordoned off with ribbons with other relations seated behind him in the order of their ranking in the mourning activity. He would remain there from right after the church service until the last prominent sympathiser has left. It is to this table that those of worth would be directed to commiserate with the family (represented by the chief mourner) in cash or kind. After giving the necessary direction for such a sympathiser’s entertainment, the chief mourner would hand over the cash to his son or some other trusted person who hovers around the table for safe keeping.
Food and drink usually flows unimpeded at such high octane funerals but in gradations. The top dogs get the best food and choice drinks while the ordinary folk get served jollof rice with the lone piece of meat perched atop it and ACB, any cold beer, to wash it down. The hoi polloi, the talakawas, would be served battalion style jollof rice with ADT, any damn thing, to drink. And they, more than any other class, usually get drunk at such functions since they guzzle ogogoro, palm wine, beer, malt drink, fruit juice, table wine and even brandy and whiskey all at the same time and against all drinking rules.
It goes without saying that no thought is spared the departed one, the platform on which such lavish business ceremony rests. Indeed he is quickly forgotten as soon as the pageant of extortion is over as the carpet baggers scamper off to a fresh victim.