Tuesday Column By VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
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First proposed in 2017 by Hon. Francis Ezeani then, the State House of Assembly Committee Chairman on Information, Tourism and Culture, the Bill to regulate burial ceremonies in Anambra state was finally passed after two years. It was then signed into law by Governor Willie Obiano. Advent of coronavirus in 2020 put further official restrictions on burial ceremonies, relating essentially to large gatherings as number of attendees was curbed. However, from recent events, it is clear the burial law is not being heeded, much less enforced. Neither are the COVID stipulations being adhered to generally. The new law stipulates that a corpse shall not be kept in the mortuary beyond two months, that burials shall be for a day and that no relative of the deceased shall be subjected to a mourning period beyond one week from the internment date. In addition destruction of property, firing of gunshots, blocking of roads are prohibited for a funeral ceremony.
While introducing the bill and buttressing the need to regulate burial ceremonies in the state in order to curb expensive spending, Hon. Ezeani had said that it was necessary to distinguish between “mourning the dead and a fiesta”. Indeed, such a law was overdue because in recent years, we have been witnessing galloping inflation and low purchasing power; yet people are still mandated to keep up with traditional burial rites that leaves many families(especially the average family) indebted, just so as to give their dead relatives a “befitting burial”; a so-called befit ring burial that is absolutely of no benefit to the one who has passed on but only massages the ego of organisers, the surviving relatives. According to the sponsor of the bill outrageous demands on the families of the deceased by traditions and customs enforced by elders without any consideration for financial capability had led to “unhealthy competition among families and friends, each trying by every means to outshine the other”.
You may have noticed that people from that part of the country do not undertake funeral rites of their departed ones soonest. Rather the corpse is kept in a mortuary pending when they are ready for it. This may take as long as one year. Meanwhile relatives have to pay for every single day the corpse spends in the cold room. Private mortuaries thrive there. For the poor and even some others who cannot afford mortuary costs, the remains of their departed ones are ‘put underneath the earth’. As the phrase indicates, this is not recognised as a burial by the community.
In fact the literary translation of that indigenous phrase for this is that the deceased is in the “underground refrigerator”. The deceased person is regarded as having been formally buried only when all funeral rites are completed. Until then the wife of the departed one is forbidden from going to the market (buying and selling) and attending meetings.
Preparations for the funeral ceremonies begin with gathering enough money which more often than not, involves borrowing because of the huge amount to be expended. Among the things required, are renovating the house or compound of the departed, giving it a new look or building a new house where there is no ‘befitting’ one; buying and sewing uniform dress material for the deceased’s family and extended family members (uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, children, etc.); killing a cow ‘in honour of the dead’, hiring a live band to entertain guests, including traditional dancers and of course, food for all and sundry.
The burial ceremony lasts for at least a week, beginning from a Thursday. Thursday is wake-keeping, Friday official requiem mass and ‘dust to dust’ ceremony by the church, after which the community’s folks commence their own ‘mourning’ rites, comprising of women’s groups, age-grade groups and other community societies/associations. Saturday is for friends, associates, in-laws and other extended family members. Sunday is for church thanksgiving by the deceased’s family. As I indicated earlier the ceremony may last for a month as family of the departed one continue to receive ‘mourners’ of all categories every other day –various groups, associations and personalities.
These sympathisers have to indicate in advance when they would come calling so the family can prepare adequately for them in terms of dances, food and meat. As a mark of a ‘befitting’ burial or better said, to show off, the bereaved family usually kills cows for the many groups that come to sympathise with them. A portion of the cow meat is given to each group/association as a memento of sort. Also, at the thanksgiving mass, the family often presents numerous food gifts and a cow to the church during offertory in order to be highly regarded. The more the number of cows slaughtered for the burial obsequies, the more esteemed the bereaved family is in the eyes of the community. It is often bandied about that in that part of our country, it is more expensive to bury a departed one than to take care of him/her whilst alive. Although many of the sympathisers, groups and associations do give the bereaved some cash, it is often not enough to recoup money spent for the funeral ceremonies for the average family.
Most bereaved families would say they are not mourning the departed but celebrating his/her life while on earth. But the burial ceremonies are the same for the one who passed on at the “ripe age of 80” with numerous children and one that departed at an ‘untimely’ time of 40 years, leaving behind one child and wife. Meanwhile amidst the pervasive jubilation and jollification, the wife may be grieving inwardly with a passive countenance. The question is, to what benefit are these festivities to the departed. We are told that they are meant to bid the departed spirit bye-bye. These celebrations are of little or no value to the departed. Those of us left behind are simply having fun and enjoying ourselves with these celebrations. By the way professional criers are also hired, paid to cry upon the death of someone. Death is a solemn event and there should thus be quietness in the death chamber. What the departed needs from all ‘sympathisers’, ‘mourners’ or ‘celebrants’ is not loud lamentations or unending celebrations but heartfelt fervent payers to the Almighty Creator that he/she be guided by His servants step by step, in his/her journey to the luminous realm of joyful activity and eternal peace.
Thus the funeral rites can be classed into two, namely, the spiritual and social aspect. The spiritual aspect consisting mainly of prayers for the departed is what is of value to the one that has left us while the social side is mainly for those of us still living on earth. It is this aspect that the Anambra law on burials seeks to regulate. The church had introduced some reforms in its own funeral rites by for example, banning all-night wake-keeping. It also outlawed sumptuous entertainment of its officiating officials at funeral ceremonies, including the choir group, stating that they should only be given drinks (non alcoholic). The Church can go further by disallowing presentation of cows and other expensive gifts at the thanksgiving services for its departed members.