From billboards, full-page ads in newspapers and gold-encrusted coffins to matching asoebi outfits and dancing pallbearers, it seems that Nigerians celebrate death in very much the same way as we celebrate life. This phenomenon has puzzled and sparked the curiosity of many. An article in the LA Times in the 1990s on burial traditions in Nigeria gave a glimpse of the expenses incurred, resulting in bank loans and monthly installments to pay for coffins, cabarets and big parties, to mention a few of the costs.
More than a decade later, nothing much has changed, as can be seen from this BBC poll that tested how much Africans spent on burying their dead. Of votes cast, 88% said yes, elaborate arrangements for funerals are a part of the culture of many people across the continent. Funeral costs drove one man to attempt to sell his son to fund the burial of his wife, the boy’s mother.
Diverse histories and traditions surround funerals and burials in Nigeria. Many ethnic groups have exstensive guidelines and prescriptions for what constitutes a fitting burial. These often depended on the cause of death, the age of the deceased and their position in society. For example, the Yoruba staged elaborate funerals, complete with music and feasting, when an elderly person, considered to have lived a fruitful life, passed away. Such people were buried in the courtyard or the room they lived in, while suicides and those who passed away young were buried in the forest without burial rites.
For centuries, funerals have consumed a lot of resources. In parts of Yoruba land during the 1800s, burial expenses could lead to serious debt, which could lead to pawning one’s property or selling oneself or, in some cases, one’s family members into slavery.
Similar traditions have been reported in Angola and Ghana, where early accounts noted the substantial amounts of money and goods spent on burials. Michael Jindra, co-editor of Funerals in Africa: Explorations of a Social Phenomenon notes that funerals are ‘by far the biggest life-cycle events in Africa’.
Buried in debt
A study in Kenya found that 63% of households that declined into poverty in rural areas cited heavy funeral costs as a cause. According to Jindra, in Cameroon some people opt to save for a funeral rather than contribute to medical costs while the person is still alive. This has prompted the sentiment that in some countries more attention is given to a person in death than in life.
Historically, there were African societies where elaborate funerals were the preserve of elite members of society. In addition, in some societies flamboyant send-offs for the dead, regardless of age or class, was not a tradition until recently. With each passing decade, however, funerals and their accompanying rites have grown in cost and extravagance, sometimes leaving the deceased’s relatives bearing a burden that is not just financial.
Capitalising on loss
I put out a call on Twitter, seeking stories of elaborate funerals. One of the people who responded to me was Deborah from Akwa Ibom State in Southern Nigeria, who lost her 82-year-old mother in 2012. Deborah and her family were not interested in impressing others with a huge ceremony and kept the funeral a one-day affair. She recalled that when her maternal grandfather died in the late 1970s, the entire extended family traveled down and camped in the village for weeks, preparing for the funeral. There was plenty of food, a live band that played every day for a week, and people in the community coming around just to eat and be merry.
When Deborah’s dad died in the 1990s, there was a similarly grand event, but only for two or three days. With her mother’s burial, it was a one-day, one-stop event. Nonetheless, Deborah and her family still had to ‘put on a show’, even if it was for that one day only, because, as the saying went, “You cannot throw our daughter/wife/mother-in-law away like she was a chicken.”
One of the reasons that funeral costs are so high in Nigeria is the fees charged by the professionals involved. Money-hungry specialists – casket makers, embalmers, gravediggers, band boys, tombstone designers, pallbearers and more – was a topic that came up more than once.
My friend Omolayo’s dad passed away in the United States in 2014 after a protracted illness. This year, his homecoming was celebrated when his wish to be buried in Nigeria was finally fulfilled. For Omolayo, the colorful asoebi and other parts of burial were more enjoyable ‘than the idea of mourning’. However, the associated costs of the burial came up in unexpected and emotionally painful ways.
For some Nigerians today, burial ceremonies are one of the few occasions when family members come from far and wide to reunite. However, in some cases, uninvited people find their way into such parties to take advantage. This was the case for Omolayo when family from Nigeria and the US gathered to celebrate her father’s homecoming – until she noticed the random strangers who entered uninvited and walked onto the dance floor, looking to collect money that is ‘sprayed’ on individuals during festivities.
Then there was the insensitivity of the gravediggers, who had been paid beforehand, asking for more money before they would cover the grave after the casket had been lowered into the ground. Pallbearers similarly asked for extra money just to move the casket. “It was as if everywhere we turned, people were asking for money,” Omolayo recalls.
That the roots of some of these rituals can be traced back in history suggests that they are ingrained in the culture and psyche of many Africans. “Everywhere we turned, people were asking for money”
This even extended to the church, which came as a surprise to Omolayo, who had been under the impression that you were not expected to pay for a funeral at a Catholic church. She gave me a breakdown of the high costs the church demanded for the burial. The overall bill included fees for the burial ground (which were not properly maintained), the priest’s stole, the choir and more. The demands extended to listing the kind of food and drink the family would provide to church workers, and they did not include a donation to the church, which was nevertheless still expected.
Whether you believe that funerals should remain uncommercialised or sympathise with the need to celebrate the dead, we can agree that funerals consume a large amount of resources. That the roots of some of these rituals can be traced back in history suggests that they are ingrained in the culture and psyche of many Africans.
“We West Africans, in general, overspend on celebrations: weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals,” Omolayo concluded. “It’s as if we just live for life’s milestones.”