By Casmir Igbokwe
Despite their itinerant nature, Igbo people have a strong attachment to their ancestral homes. On every festive occasion, many of them troop home from the cities to savour convivial communal life. Christmas, Easter and New Yam festival periods provide a veritable platform for solemnization of marriages, funerals, house warming, outing of a new age grade and title-taking.
None of these ceremonies is cheap. During traditional marriage ceremony, for instance, there are usually different groups comprising men, women, and youths who make undue demands from the in-law. Daughters of the soil, called umuada, usually come prepared. Most of them leave their houses on empty stomach. But by the time the occasion ends, you see them with protruding tummies and bags bulging with food and drinks.
For title-taking, there is no problem because people who take titles are assumed to be wealthy. It is not compulsory, except for those who hold traditional offices in their towns. For instance, Isuofia town in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State has a new Onowu (traditional prime minister) in the person of Mr. Ndubuisi Osele. But because he is not an Ozo title holder, the town insisted that he has to be initiated into the Ozo society before he is finally crowned as the Onowu. He has started the initiation process.
The major area of contention is funerals. In some years back, a burial ceremony could last for more than one week in many parts of Igboland. For this number of days, a bereaved family had to contend with entertaining guests who would come to pay condolence visits with food and drinks. Burial of a married woman is usually more expensive. You have to spend both in her maternal and husband’s homes. If the deceased lived abroad, the expenses start from transporting the remains home. The cost depends on where the corpse is being transported from. Earlier in the year, a certain poor family in my village went on fund-raising and actually spent about N3.5 million to bring home the corpse of their loved one from South America.
Today, many towns have tried to intervene to beat down the cost of funerals. For instance, they have shortened the number of days from one week to between one and three days.
The church has also tried to intervene. In the Catholic Diocese of Awka, for instance, once a person dies, you must bury him within two months. This is to curtail the practice of keeping a dead person in the mortuary for months while looking for money to do the funeral. Awka Diocese has also banned printing of burial brochures.
Following in the footsteps of the church is the Anambra State House of Assembly. Recently, the state’s lawmakers passed a bill to stop expensive funerals in the state. According to the bill, it is now an offence to hold funerals for more than one day in the state. The bill, sponsored by the lawmaker representing Anaocha II Constituency, Charles Ezeani, also prohibits depositing a corpse in the mortuary or any place beyond two months from the date of death.
If the governor signs the bill into law, it means it will also be an offence to destroy property, fire gunshots, and block roads during funerals. Besides, “no person shall subject any relation of a deceased person to a mourning period of more than one week from the date of the burial.”
Also, the deceased’s family shall provide food for their kindred, relatives and other sympathisers at their own discretion.
But how easy is it to implement the provisions of this bill, if signed into law by Governor Willie Obiano? The sponsor of the bill, Ezeani, said the Assembly would set up a monitoring and implementation committee to enforce the law. The question is, how many people will be members of this committee and how will they effectively monitor funerals in the entire state?
Reactions from Anambra citizens have been mixed. For instance, the Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral, Ekwulobia, in Aguata Local Government Area of the state, Rev. Fr. Ignatius Onwuatuegwu, hailed the bill as progressive. Thanking God for the bill, the priest noted that the church, for a long time, had been fighting to cut down funeral expenses. Fr. Onwuatuegwu said he had already started creating awareness of the bill in his parish, and that it was possible to use a day for funeral.
On his part, the traditional ruler of Ekwulobia and chairman of Aguata Traditional Rulers, Igwe Emmanuel Oyeneke, supported the use of one day for funerals. He reportedly said, “It is possible, if groups will maintain their time, as it will reduce financial, emotional and physical stress.”
Unlike Onwuatuegwu, who hailed the stoppage of gunshots during funerals because some hypertensive patients had gone into panic at the sound of gunshots, Oyeneke condemned it. According to him, “Gunshot is significant. In the traditional Igbo belief, it is believed that gunshot marks the time when the spirit of the dead leaves for its resting place.” He added that Igbo believe in ‘Ikwu n’ ibe’ (relatives). Hence, when one’s in-laws or kinsmen come to condole with him during funeral ceremony, they deserve to be offered kolanuts, drinks and food.
This appears to be the opinion of many Anambra citizens. I took time to read reactions from different quarters and the majority said the government had no business telling them how to bury their loved ones.
I support this view. There are many big issues begging for government’s attention. Burial and wedding ceremonies should be left to town unions and religious bodies to regulate. Different communities and churches have been doing that. The intention is to protect poor families that go out of their way to borrow to foot the high cost associated with such occasions. Some try to impress so that it won’t be like poverty has a permanent residence in their houses.
This should not be so. People should learn to self-regulate themselves. All fingers are not equal. If Okeke family killed four cows to bury their loved one, Okafor family must not struggle to do same, if it lacks the means.
There is this tradition called ‘oku ogo’ (invitation of in-laws). In this case, the deceased’s family invites all the in-laws to a meeting on a stipulated day before the burial. At the meeting, the family provides food with large lumps of meat and drinks. The only reason for this meeting is to formally inform the in-laws about the death and date for the funeral.
To me, this is no more necessary and can be done away with. Information about the burial can be sent through various means, including phone calls, text messages and WhatsApp or email messages. This will not diminish the significance of the burial and will not stop the deceased from ascending to heaven, which we believe is the final resting place for those who lived a good life here on earth.
Sometimes, it is one’s family kindred that push one into some of these unnecessary expenditures. They will tell you that no cow was killed for your great-grandfather and as such you must slaughter one for him first before you do so for the fresh death.
The reality in many Igbo families today is that the death of someone is the time to start renovating or even building a new house. That is when people sell their land, borrow money and empty their savings just to bury the dead. That is also when debts incurred by the deceased when he was alive are cleared both in the church and the community.
There is no problem, if one has the money and can effortlessly foot the funeral expenses. But it would be silly for one to borrow to do some of these things.
One good thing about Igbo funerals is that friends and relatives help to cushion the high cost imposed on the family. They donate money, food items and drinks. Those who come on condolence visits also give some cash and drinks.
I believe every culture or religion has a way of cushioning the effects of deaths and burials. True Muslims, for instance, do not over-celebrate death. Once a person dies, he is buried immediately. Going to the mortuary or buying expensive caskets is out of it. They believe that life is vanity. Whether we bury our loved ones with gold jewellery or even use a hybrid car as coffin, they will not come back to life.
By and large, culture is dynamic. Some of the things we did 50 years ago have fizzled out today. If you have the money and feel like giving your loved one a befitting burial, so be it. But the high incidence of deaths and the economic realities of today, more than laws and coercion, are what will eventually force people to cut down on burial expenses and celebrate the living more than the dead.
- First published in the Daily Sun of Monday, May 6, 2019.