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Funerals in Ghana: A celebration of the dead or an occasion to repair, enhance family reputation?

In Ghana, a small country in West Africa, there are many occasions that call for celebrations. Some of these occasions are naming ceremonies, weddings, graduations and funerals. In this particular write-up, I choose to focus on funerals. The question I would like to consider here is: Are funerals in Ghana really about the dead person or are opportunities for families to showcase their wealth and achievements?

From the onset, it must be clarified that funeral is only a subset of the Ghanaian death rites. The death rites comprise burial rites and the final funeral rites. Though burial and funerals could be held together, it is not uncommon to have someone buried some months before the final obsequies. Also, unlike the West where funerals could be celebrated on each day of the week, funerals in Ghana are normally celebrated on the weekends. Celebrating funerals on the weekends is quite convenient for those engaged in busy schedules in the cities.

Typically, traditional Ghanaian funerals used to be highly religious. Even before a person died, he or she would be given water to drink. The elderly woman who gave the water would intercede for the dying person to go in peace. Many tribes in Ghana believed that death was a journey and as people in real life would drink water before embarking on a journey, the water given to the dying person was to help him or her climb and descend the steep mountains of the other world.

Couldn’t this water be compared to the Christian Anointing and Viaticum? There was a strong sense of the hereafter and the Akans for instance believed in Asamando (the Ancestral world). Asamando was considered an abode for those who had died natural death and at ripe age. As a world, the dead person needed items and goods to sustain him or her. Money, cloth, towel, sponge and all items needed for life could be put in the coffin.

Moreover, before the coffin was nailed shut or even covered with soil at the cemetery, the bereaved family would pour libations asking for good reception for the dead in the ancestral world and also good fortunes from the dead. It is obvious at this point that the burial rites were very much spiritual.

Contrary to the above description, Sjaak van der Geest, a renowned medical anthropologist, after his fieldwork in Ghana observed that Ghanaian funerals are ‘this-worldly’ than ‘other-worldly’. In my opinion, Geest’s observation is the absolute truth of funerals today in Ghana. Firstly, with the advent of modernity, many are gradually losing the sense of the afterlife. For those who have not lost the sense of the hereafter for example Muslims and Christians, their religions offer a different belief of life after death which seems to be different from the traditional Ghanaian beliefs. More and more, the dead is becoming an epiphenomenon or an excuse for the living to celebrate themselves. Many in Ghana today whether knowingly or unknowingly see status and money intertwined.

In other words, the rich are easily recognised and respected. Against this backdrop, families would do everything possible to have grand and expensive funerals. At these funerals there would be announcements in the national dailies, radio stations the dead would be preserved at the mortuary for weeks, months or even a year, there would be special coffins, customised cloths.

The services of morticians, ‘criers’, specialised pallbearers, hearse and caterers would be sought. It must be mentioned that all the just mentioned services are great deals of money. It is the rich who could afford these services.

Being able to hire these services show how well-to-do a family is. This thought alone raises the prestige of the family involved. Families with bad reputations also seize opportunities like this to enhance or repair their damaged status. Ironically, the dead person must have lived in abject poverty whilst alive without not a penny from family members. Many families believe that whilst the dead person’s life was private, the funeral ought to be grand since that is public and the family’s reputation is on the line.

The more we lose the spirituality of the dead and death, the more the social celebrations take over. It is sad to  know of families borrowing huge sums of money for a funeral and many end up in gargantuan debts after the funeral. Many think it is an obligation since it is about the family’s status.

With Akan proverbs such as ‘Efunu nnim kata wo to’ which literally means ‘the dead person does not know that his or her buttocks is naked’ and ‘Kente yede daadaa funu’ ‘Kente (beautiful Akan multi-coloured cloth) is used to deceive the dead’, it becomes crystal clear that death rites are less about the dead and more about the living.

In Ghana, a country where honour and shame is a big deal, there is always the tendency to impress others especially at celebrations. Unfortunately, the hunger for honour and prestige is making many spend quality time and resources on funerals.

I think the spirituality of death whether traditional or Christian ought to be accentuated. Let us pray for the dead as they transition to the hereafter and also ask for their intercessions. All the time and resources spent on death rites and final obsequies could be used to support our children in schools. This I strongly believe could help develop enough human resources for our beautiful country. God bless our homeland Ghana!

Source: Clement Baffoe, SVD

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