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Feature Article of Monday, 20 February 2012

Columnist: Ofori, Oral

A taste for Ghanaian funerals

and some strange burial practices of the world


By Oral Ofori


Funerals are traditional rites that date back to creation. For many
cultures across the world, they form part of the rites of passage
performed to usher the dead into the spirit world or the afterlife.
Funerals are deeply rooted in creation as these rites started to be
respected and performed right from the days of Adam and Eve, or where
ever the concept of creation starts for you as per your beliefs.

Every culture since civilization tends to the appropriate care of its
dead and most of them have three things in common as far as
disposition of the dead matters. Firstly, the organization of some
type of funeral rites, rituals, and ceremonies. Secondly, the securing
of a sacred place for burying the dead and thirdly, memorializing of
the dead.

It is all joy anytime a child is born, however death presents a direct
contrast. Even when people die at ripe old ages like in their 80's and
above, they are mourned by their families extensively or briefly
depending on the culture in which the death occurs. In the Ghanaian
custom, funeral rites share common procedures though there are some
noticeable distinctions. For some, the rank of the dead or tradition
from which they hail determines the way in which their funeral is
organized.

For example an important person like a King, Chief, or somebody from a
royal family or of noble standing is given a much more elaborate
funeral laced with all the associated rituals involved. It is common
practice among many Ghanaians in recent history to keep their dead in
the morgue for times stretching between two to three weeks to a month
or even in some cases years. If the dead person were a royal or holds
an office to which a successor is not easily or simply chosen, the
dead is normally kept for years, and this is not strange to the
Ghanaian culture.

In such peculiar cases, mourning goes on for as long as it takes to
prepare and plan the burial and continues even after the deceased has
been buried. In Ghana, the traditional dress color for mourning the
dead is black and in certain cases red. The wearing of the black dress
is very normal to every traditional home where funerals occur, in some
rare cases, the dress code for a funeral is white. When this happens,
the organizers of such funerals defend their use of white clothing as
their desire to celebrate the passing of the dead rather than mourning
them. This happens to be case when the deceased lived past 80 years or
more or might have died younger but made tremendous achievements in
their lives that many people are benefiting from.

In the past, funerals have been organized in a much simpler way to cut
down on cost, however, the case is no longer the same today. In recent
times funerals among Ghanaians and Africans up here in the States and
also those back home in their respective African countries have almost
become a business-like activity. The business of undertakers has
flourished in a more complex nature today. Decades back, to think that
people would even ponder making money off the occurrence of death was
unimaginable. Today the building of coffins to reflect the profession
of the dead is very common in Ghana. A doctor or fisherman for
instance might be buried in a coffin that is built to respectively
look like a syringe or a fish, and yes the photo you see .

Today some bereaved families hire the services of undertakers to
organize the entire funeral and do things like employing the service
of criers who weep till almost everyone becomes saddened by their
weeping and join in. The criers are believed to add bite to funerals,
bringing some dignity and honor to the dead and especially their
family. In many cases parties are organized with DJ's performing to
entertain relatives and friends of the dead. Funerals are now major
displays of extravagance in most parts of west Africa. Families try to
out do each other in terms of who organizes the best and most
expensive funeral(s). In certain regions of Ghana, funerals are major
platforms where people go to display their affluence.

The way in which a royal is buried is different from the way an
ordinary person is. A royal will be buried with all the necessary
regalia, pomp and pageantry, as was richly displayed in the case of
the Ghanaian culture during the celebration of the death and burial of
the Asante Hene, Otumfuo Opoku Ware II. The Otumfuo who lived from
November 30, 1919 died on February 26, 1999. For most royal families
in Ghana, the belief is that a royal is expected to continue his/her
reign in the spirit world after death. Owing to this concept, the
addition of gifts of remembrance and things that might come in handy
for the departed soul is placed in their coffin. This practice was
common in ancient Africa, especially among the Egyptians who are known
to have mummified dead Pharaohs in tombs built inside grand and
intricate pyramids thousands of years ago.

As earlier said, a unique feature about funerals among Ghanaians today
is that they have become expensive, and showy so much so that some
sections of society is getting irritated about it as some Ghanaians in
and out of the country would have preferred that the deceased is
buried solemnly and gracefully in an inexpensive manner, simply
because the dictates of today's glamorous funerals among Ghanaians
imposes huge expenses.

The pressure to organize elaborate and showy funerals his has
compelled many people who do not have the money for such to go ahead
and do it all the same. Most often than not, this becomes detrimental
to a grieving family as they are saddled with debt problems
afterwards. Though this has been condemned by many, people still
continue to indulge in such funeral extravagance and it appears not to
be a solely Ghanaian thing as cultures across the globe are guilty of
this phenomenon.

Situating the funeral of the Ghanaian in the context of other African
countries, there are very noticeable similarities as they basically
follow very similar patterns. There are however some differences
across Africa and the globe that are worth touching on due to how
bizarre they tend to be in nature. One such example is seen in the
African country of Congo where some Pygmies deal with death in an
entirely strange manner. The huts of the dead and that of those around
them are pulled down on top of the dead body and the community
evacuates their village camp.

Family members mourn the loss with crying. Afterwards, the dead
individual is never mentioned again. Similar to the Pygmies, the
destruction of the homes of dead people was common among the
Congolese. There is this superstition among relatives of the dead
among this custom that the dead sometimes return to where they died,
which is why besides the pulling down of their huts, family members of
the dead and in certain cases, entire villages walk a different route
in an attempt to prevent the spirit of their loved one from following
them back home.

Have you heard about the rare and ancient Hindu burial practice called
Sati? This rare Hindu practice involves a widow burning herself alive
during the funeral of her husband with the believe that this ultimate
act of loyalty to her husband will turn her into a goddess. Shrines
are put up in honor of a woman who does this. This practice is frowned
upon in modern day India but it very occasionally continues to happen.
In 1987, an 18-year-old girl cremated herself alongside her
24-year-old husband. Sati also happened twice in 2006 and once in
2008.

By now, cremation is no longer a 'wow' practice of disposition of the
dead. A wow discovery I however made was the fact that some cultures
today leave their dead to decompose out in the open whiles others let
vultures peck on the bodies of their deceased. But it is comfortable
to say that most cultures worldwide bury their loved ones who have
passed on, in the ground, a practice as old as creation itself and
talked about in the Christian Bible in Genesis 3:19 which reads...''by
the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the
ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust
you shall return''. May the souls of all the departed now rest in
peace.


Oral Ofori, +1202-706-9881, oralofori@gmail.com, Freelance Writer,
Broadcaster, Retail Specialist, Music Promoter, Artiste.
http://about.me/oralofori/

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