Funeral festivals in Ghana

ghanaDamian Avevor
A worrying phenomenon creeping into the Ghanaian society these days is the way funerals are becoming competitive festivals where wealth is lavishly displayed leaving huge debts burdening the bereaved families. Interestingly, a funeral is a time to both mourn and celebrate life.

Funerals have always been the main public social gathering among Ghanaians but the growing funeral business significantly alters the way death is celebrated.

The crave by Ghanaians to mount lavish funeral ceremonies has always surfaced for public debate.

In most tribes, funeral events are held each week.

These go with lavish spending on food, drinks, and the hiring of loud speakers; expensive clothes of different kinds are also displayed at the funeral for show off.

Some also take advantage of the funeral to steal and engage in immoral activities such as dating and romance.

Every Saturday is funeral day.

In every mid-sized town there are two or more funerals.

Hundreds of people come together to pay their last respects to a deceased loved one, or to sympathise with a bereaved friend.

People dress up and travel to attend a funeral in another town or village.

In turn, they expect the bereaved family to entertain them with music, dance, drinks, and sometimes food.

In the evening, it can be hard to find transport back to town, when trotro (minibuses for public transport) are stuffed with funeral guests going home.

And every Saturday night people dressed in black and red funeral cloth flock together in Hotel de Kingsway to end the day’s funeral by dancing to the tunes of high-life music.

Funerals are at the heart of Ghanaian culture and social life.

In Ghana, funerals are more than any other ceremony increasingly gaining in scale and importance.

It is almost universally acknowledged that Ghanaians adore the dead and will commit so much to performing expensive and flamboyant funeral rites.

This practice is as old as the earliest history books and contemporary as the morning newspapers.

The dimension which contemporary Ghanaian funerals have assumed over the last decade gives a great cause for concern if not worry.

Whilst in other parts of the world people are working hard sometimes seven days a week, some people in Ghana spend time on the non-essentials, celebrating one week celebrations, final funeral rites, 40 day celebration of the dead.

In 2011, the Catholic Archdiocese of Kumasi banned the buying of special clothes for the one week celebration and final funeral rites as well as the thanksgiving service by families and sympathisers.

The ban was a result of new regulations issued by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kumasi concerning celebration of funerals for its members.

The purpose of the funeral regulations, according to Reverend Father Michael Sarfo Katanka, director of communications of the archdiocese, was to make funerals less burdensome by reducing ostentation and the cost involved in the celebration.

The archdiocese has among other things also banned the arrangement and display of things in a convoy known as “adekyeredee” during funerals of church members.

Other activities banned by the regulations include changing of clothing on the corpse when it lies in state and the laying of wreaths.

The serving of food and drinks during the one week celebration of a deceased member was also abolished and only water would be served.

Similarly, during the burial and final funeral rites, food and drinks would not be served except to mourners and sympathisers who would have travelled far and early.

Food would not be served at all in the afternoon.

However, water and soft drinks could be served.

The regulations also insist that brochures for Requiem Masses of deceased members should have only the picture of the deceased, a general programme of the Mass, the biography and one or two tributes but only one shall be read together with the biography. The regulations also limit the keeping of the corpse at the morgue to not more than 40 days.

The regulations stipulated that donations could be made during the final funeral rites. In case of the one-week celebrations, the donations would be made without public announcements.

The regulations called for close collaboration between the church and the family of any deceased member in organising funeral celebrations to ensure their smooth enforcement.

Surprisingly, our politicians,( from the President in the Castle to the Unit Committee Chairman in Alakple my hometown) attend funerals almost every weekend.

Consciously or unconsciously, Ghanaians seem to measure the efficiency of a Minister or Member of Parliament by the number of funerals he or she attends every weekend and the donations made to the bereaved families.

Without any reservation, I must state from the onset that Ghanaians spend more money on funerals than on weddings.

One cannot imagine that some tribes and families spend as much as between 70 and 150 million cedis on funerals.

Along highways, people clad in black, brown, and burgundy colours in every town, village and hamlet are a common feature.

These are the traditional mourning clothes worn by Ghanaians when someone commits suicide, dies in battle or is shot dead in any way.

There are occasions when some wear white indicating that someone has lived to a ripe old age. Usually, when a person dies, the immediate relatives in the town or village are summoned to a meeting where they are informed of the passing.

In modern times, with advent of refrigeration, with the exception of the villages, bodies are deposited in the mortuary if the person died at home, or if in the hospital, that is procedure.

An autopsy will be conducted. After that, the family may leave the body in the mortuary for so long as they have money to pay for the mortuary fees.

In the interim, messages will be sent to all relatives far and near.

If there are children and siblings outside the country, they will be informed.

A week after the death, the family will gather to celebrate; this is the time when they will decide on burial arrangements.

In some tribes like the Akan group, a family does not refer to mother and father but means people on your mother’s side (matrilineal), hence the body belongs to them.

Depending on where children and siblings are, the burial may take place in a short time or they’ll wait for those outside the country to return.

When the date is set, usually the ancestral family home will be painted with a fresh coat of paint. Everything will be spruced up because visitors will be coming.

Before funerals are held, it is a common sight along the major roads to be hit by huge clourful billboards advertising funeral arrangements.

These billboards which are also expensive range from 1,000 to 5,000 Ghana cedis depending on the size. Of late in Ghana, these billboards are gradually surfacing on the skyline of the nation’s capital, Accra where huge billboards are erected at strategic locations announcing funeral arrangements.

They are so conspicuous that no one who takes some particular route misses it.

The multi-million question asked by people is whether the billboards denote affluence, class, ostentatious living or otherwise?

Enquiries revealed in Accra, it is believed that families that put up such funeral billboards might have relations who work in an advertising agency. These freely donate these billboards to serve as a forceful reminder to relations, friends and well wishers as other forms of advertisements such as invitation cards are easily misplaced.

Burials normally take place towards the weekend. On the day before the burial, the body will be retrieved from the mortuary and brought to the family house.

Female family members who are versed in handling dead bodies will bath and prepare the body.

The body will be laid in state and family members keep vigil over it.

The coffins that are manufactured are brightly coloured, elaborate and festive.

Often called “fantasy coffins”, they represent something about how the deceased lived.

Coffins are created in the form of fish, animals, cars, bottles, bibles, and any other object requested. A fisherman may get a fish coffin; a carpenter, a hammer; or a photographer, a camera. Someone devout may choose a bible.

Vices like beet bottles and cigarettes are also used.

This different posture of laying corpse is very disturbing to an extent that it has now become a fashion. Some are laid to indicate the kind of work they did before their death, including standing with a hand on sewing machine to indicate that the person was a seamstress or tailor.

Some are laid to stand beside a table, holding tools of a carpenter; sit down near an old gear box indicating that the deceased was a mechanic; sit on a chair holding an impoverished steering wheel, indicating that that he was a driver before death.

According to Rev. Fr. Francis Homatekpor of the Ho Diocese, the new phenomenon of laying corps is only subjecting the dead person to further agony, because someone who passes away is sleeping in the Lord.

With the advent of Christianity, church services have been added.

The burial may take place on a Friday or Saturday. The body will be taken to a church where the funeral services will take place and interred at one of the cemeteries.

Upon return, the family will gather in front of the family house or on a soccer field to hold the funeral celebrations.

Here, guests will be served with drinks, music will be played, and people will dance to celebrate the life of the deceased.

There will be special tables set aside where people will make financial donations to the family to help defray the cost of the funeral.

On the Sunday, if they are Christians, they will go to church for a thanksgiving and memorial service. After service, the family and visitors will gather at a hall where they will be treated to some tasty meals. At the end those who travelled from afar will ask permission to leave.

A few years back, we never heard of “take away” packages at funerals but now they are very much in vogue and if one does not include it in funeral expenditure, it is as if one is looked down upon. Should funerals be a time to display one’s opulence and pedigree and must we follow others if we cannot afford?

Forty days later, the family will gather for the 40 day celebration. Research has shown that some Ghanaians used to have the 90 day celebration but that is currently out of style. A year later, the first anniversary is celebrated.

Based on the lavish funerals Ghanaians have, there is need to change certain habits and lifestyles to move the nation in the right direction.

Apart from expensive coffins, bereaved families go in for expensive clothing at times two different types to show off at such funerals.

Some go to an extent of hiring bands to make the occasion glamorous.

But unfortunately, the notion one gets from such selfish display of affluence is that Ghanaians now honour or prefer the dead than the living.

In a Parliamentary debate in 2007, Mr. Alban Bagbin, is reported to have said that ‘we are investing in the dead rather than the living through expensive funerals and that is bad’.

He added that the dead should be given decent and not expensive burials knowing very well that whatever was done to the dead was destined for the grave.

On the same issue, Honourable Alfred Agbesi,the Member of Parliament for Ashiaman, who revealed that he had bought 13 pieces of mourning cloths in one year, called for the introduction of one cloth for all funerals, arguing among other things that, “after spending on expensive cloths, coffins and keeping the corpse in expensive morgues, the widow and children are left with nothing and are expected to fend for themselves.”

Must we fritter away money on funerals if we cannot afford to do so only to discover that we have plunged the family into debt while the money used could have been spent on education of the deceased children?

The Moslems take few hours to bury their dead while some resort to cremation three days after the death of a member.

In as much as one would not be against the dead being accorded a befitting burial, many concerns lie in the way some bereaved families go about the funerals.

Every Ghanaian knows that funerals are performed to bid farewell to the departed one, but do not know that it costs the nation many hours and low productivity as many workers leave on Fridays for funerals and perhaps return Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.

This has resulted in the dismissal of some of them.

We must always remember that whatever we spend in heightening the burial of a deceased relative cannot revive him to life. He cannot return to life and it is therefore a waste on the so called befitting burial.

The time has come for to reduce funeral expenses and leave enough money for orphans, widows, widowers and other members of bereaved families. It is never too late for chiefs, opinion leaders, churches and religious organizations and other influential people in society, to intensify their call to Ghanaians to reduce funeral bills.

Ghanaians must take a cue from the words of the immediate past Director-General of the Ghana Health Service, Professor Agyeman Badu Akosa that we should pay more attention to healthy living and give priority to our health instead of spending all our resources on expensive funerals.

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