When my dear mother passed on in 2018, I did not get the opportunity to mourn her privately. I felt overwhelmed with obligations, arrangements and activities preceding her funeral. In hindsight, I wish I had had the opportunity to hold a small private funeral – devoid of pomp and pageantry – to say goodbye.
The obligations began almost as soon as she had passed on. My siblings and I had to travel back and forth to officially inform the head of the family, relatives and our mother’s church. This took a toll on us.
Then we had to organize a one-week ceremony to mark her death at which the funeral date was announced. And through all this, I still hadn’t even come to terms with her passing nor the events leading up to her death.
As custom demands, the family had a sitting for days following the death. And then there was also a forty-day celebration of the dead, final funeral rites and a one-year celebration.
The emotional stress, psychological and physical drain on the body, mind and soul cannot be quantified. What can be quantified is the cost, which is high.
Funerals are important because it is the time to express condolences to the bereaved family. As a member of the Akan, our funerals bring people together – more so than other social events.
Funerals are big business. An average funeral could cost between $15,000-$20,000. The average Ghanaian spends between GHC1,950 to GHC5,250 ($342-921) per year on funerals in the form of contributions and other expenses. For a country where 32 per cent of Ghanaians are poor and live below the minimum wage of US$2.16 a day, this can place a huge financial burden on the families left behind.
This high cost has raised justified debates regarding the elaborate nature of funeral celebrations. In some cases, families borrow money to organise funerals and many are left in debt.
Ghana is not alone. A study in Kenya found heavy funeral costs caused 63% of households to decline into poverty in rural areas. Reports show that Nigeria’s elaborate and expensive funerals are rooted in history and a typical traditional funeral cost $9,000. Across the globe, campaigns have started to push back against excessive spending on funerals among the poor and the vulnerable. These campaigns have been given impetus by changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Ghana’s early days of the Covid-19 induced lockdown in March 2020, many families could not bury their dead and morgues were overcrowded with bodies. Health and local authorities recommended small private burials which adhered to social distancing rules as soon as possible.
Some families held small funerals that were live-streamed to extended family members. Most families were not willing to hold private burials, instead, they left the bodies of their loved ones in the morgue, till the ban was lifted.
Some may argue that privately mourning the dead will mean abandoning traditions and customs. However, Numo Blafo III, (the Fetish priest of Asere clan) believes the outbreak of the virus and the ban on mass gatherings will help protect the true culture of the Ga people.
In Ga tradition, the Kotsagbamo rite is privately and solemnly performed before the corpse is bathed. However, in modern times, this has been characterized by the extravagant display of wealth amid loud music and celebrations. During the Covid-19 restrictions, the rites were performed privately devoid of all pomp and pageantry.
Perhaps we can now take some of these benefits into the future and save time and money while giving mourning families the space to grieve.
It is time for us to scale down and put the focus back on celebrating the living, so we can truly be at rest when they are no longer with us. We can uphold our culture and give our dead a befitting burial in small settings, where the focus is on the person being celebrated.
This piece was first published in the Daily Graphic Newspaper
The writer, Mavis Owureku-Asare (PhD) is a food scientist and 2020 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @mowurekuasare.