Chike Okoye is a Nigerian student based in the United States. He works part time to keep up his college fee payments and sends money home regularly through Western Union to support his ailing father Chief Okoye and his siblings. Chief Okoye had a stroke three years ago, which left him severely incapacitated. He had no medical insurance in place, and very few relations or friends were in a position to, or were inclined to assist with the nursing care, physiotherapy and medication required; this took a huge toll on the family finances.
In October last year Chief Okoye died. Chike, his eldest son was expected to travel home to take charge of arrangements. As his father was titled, expectations were high for a lavish funeral. The family house was in a state of disrepair and badly in need of refurbishment. A team of painters and builders was dispatched to ‘touch up’ the compound, install air conditioning, a generator and spruce up the place just to keep up appearances. Chief Okoye’s remains were kept in the mortuary for three months, at significant cost whilst arrangements were being made.
“Well-wishers” expected to be fed for several weeks prior to the funeral and beyond, and reported daily as early as 7am. Some “elders” even suggested that the cow he bought was too small and that the portions being served would never go round. Large colorful posters announced the passing of “a rare gem” and friends and associates placed expensive obituaries and goodwill messages in the print and electronic media to show association and sympathy.
Sadly, by the time Chike returned to the US after the ceremonies were over, his finances were so badly depleted that he had to withdraw from college and secure a full time job to build up resources to be able to continue his education.
Funeral traditions vary in Nigeria according to community. For example, in some parts of the country, a whole week is set aside. The body lies in state in an elaborately decorated chamber and direct descendants of the deceased are dressed in expensive ceremonial garments. Family “uniforms” are made available at some cost for immediate and extended family and friends to show a sense of community and belonging.
Guests turn out in large numbers for the duration of the festivities and are fed and entertained. They are usually grouped in specially designated areas reserved for In-laws, classmates, club members, friends, business associates, and members of the extended family. Buses may be chartered to transport some of the guests back to their destinations. Family members gather again on the 7th or 40th day and again a year later for yet another celebration to mark the anniversary.
Some people feel pressured to sell valuable assets, including shares and family land to give a ‘befitting burial’ to loved ones. It is expected to display as much pomp and pageantry as a carnival. ‘Critics’ assess the funerals and those who do not meet up to expectation are viewed with some level of scorn. There is also some level of extortion; there are tales of the coffin disappearing on the morning of the funeral only to reappear after a tidy sum was paid!
Sometimes the corpse may be kept in the mortuary for extended periods at exorbitant cost whilst elaborate arrangements are underway or until close relations are able to agree on a convenient date for all to attend the funeral. Mortuary costs continue to mount after several date changes awaiting consensus. For those with titles, ceremonies can drag on for a very long time.
One must not lose sight of the distressed and distracted descendants trying to focus at work as D-day looms, as well as the lost man-hours of absence from work for extended periods.
An Anglican Bishop in Uganda once caused a stir when at a funeral he publicly denounced the practice saying it was “a form of corruption that impoverishes bereaved families” leaving them indebted for years as they strive to meet up with societal expectations. At that funeral, the son of a poor widow was forced to slaughter the family’s only milk cow in order to feed teeming crowds at her funeral.
In Nigeria, The Anglican Communion and the Catholic Diocese have played a significant role in trying to encourage moderation and curb some of the excesses to drive much needed change in our society. In some areas, the dead must be buried within two weeks otherwise the church will not be involved in the funeral rites. There is a lesson to be learned from the Moslem faith where the dead are buried swiftly and ceremonies are usually completed with relative simplicity.
Death continues to be an extremely sensitive subject and we seldom discuss our mortality. If you wish to be buried like royalty, pre-plan your funeral and set aside funds specifically for the event so that loved ones are not further burdened with a myriad of financial and other decisions at an already awful time.
In a funeral plan, you can incorporate all your specific wishes; as regards where you wish to be buried, the preferred type of funeral service and rites, music, flowers, mortuary, casket, entertainment, clothing, and most importantly, funding including a spending limit. The plan should be revealed to a confidant that is in a position to implement it.
Funerals often take place in villages that lack even the most basic infrastructure; clean water, proper sanitation, basic healthcare, schools, electricity, roads. The contrast becomes all the more glaring when for the duration of the obsequies, the quiet simplicity of a sleepy village is transformed and bursting with the activity and opulence of the funeral ceremonies, which take place in an environment of extreme poverty and lack.
A death provides an opportunity to leave an enduring legacy, a watershed that allows one to make some basic improvements within one’s community. Imagine if instead of spending a huge amount on the funeral ceremony itself, even 10% of expenses were applied towards an endowment fund set up in memory of the deceased, which could assist the community in funding the education of less able relatives.
Sometimes it is evident that when the individual was alive, little was spent on their health and comfort. Indeed they may have survived, had funds been provided for prompt and effective medical treatment! Yet in death, so much more is spent to put on an elaborate display. That a funeral ceremony should cost more than the deceased ever spent, let alone earned, in his or her entire lifetime is totally absurd. The most befitting honour we can give a loved one is to provide them with love, care and attention during their lifetime.
It is true that we cannot divorce ourselves from the psychological and sociological orientations of our cultural heritage; indeed, to honour our dead in a meaningful way, remains a matter of utmost importance. However, there may be a need to revisit some of the original values where traditional funeral ceremonies were not ostentatious, but were simple, yet dignified ceremonies for celebrating, consecrating, and remembering the life of the deceased, whilst taking into account socio-economic realities.