I recently saw a comedy in which two women-obsessed protagonists paid a visit to their mentor, only to find that he had given up gatecrashing weddings (to chat up women) in favor of crashing funerals. As he put it, “grief is nature's most powerful aphrodisiac.” While I laughed at the character's sheer sleaziness, it occurred to me that 'funeral crashing' is not such a laughing matter in here in Ghana. In fact, it is probably the norm.
Death is Ghana's national pastime and Ghanaians spend most weekends of the year drifting from one funeral to another. Where the West has its 'Wedding Planners', Ghana has 'Funeral Contractors': people who are paid to take care of everything from the announcement of a late loved one's 'Calling to Glory' (or 'Transition' or 'Home Calling') to the hiring of 'professional mourners' to wail more loudly than everyone else at the burial.
In a way, it is very beautiful; something linking us to a cultural past that we have otherwise forgotten. It is a profoundly African thing to venerate one's elders, and crossing over into the world of the ancestors once inspired the Pharoahs to have the Pyramids built to house their mummified bodies and focus their energies towards the skies; pyramids that people dedicated (and lost) their lives towards building. Funerals are part of the very fabric of African society as a whole. More so than weddings and births, they bring extended families together, pulling people in over air and sea to share in each other's grief and be there for each other. If you are ever to bump into family members you never knew you had, chances are that you will do so at a funeral.
Sadly, there is a dark side to our obsession with the Dead. It is surprising that the people of a nation still emerging from being a 'Highly Indebted Poor Country' should spend so much on death. Bodies can lie in morgues for months amassing debt while loans are secured to finance funerals far more elaborate than they are reflective of the lives of the deceased. At the funeral of the late MP, Ms. Hawa Yakubu, the Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra - Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle - expressed concern about our funerary culture, saying that "Funerals have become extremely extravagant... It is insensitive to the plight of the bereaved families."
The matter has even been debated in Parliament, prompting Minority Leader Alban Bagbin to complain that “we are investing in the dead rather than the living through expensive funerals.” After spending money on thirteen different mourning cloths in one year, the Honourable MP for Ashiaman, Mr. Alfred Agbesi, went as far as to suggest the introduction of one cloth for all funerals, arguing that “after spending on expensive cloths, coffins and keeping the corpse in expensive morgues, the widow and children are left with nothing and are expected to fend for themselves.”
Ghanaians have become very good at celebrating each other's religious holidays, but perhaps notes should be exchanged between the nation's two biggest religions on conducting funerals as well. Muslim tradition holds that the dead must be wrapped in white and buried after a maximum of three days. Biblical ambiguity over the matter however appears to have given Ghanaian Christians more creative license than they can handle.
Surely a funeral should be a simple, heartfelt celebration of a person's life by people who knew and loved that person; not a symbol of status where far more wealth is spent on a person than they ever received in life.
This article was printed in Sunday World newspaper on November 4, 2008