But why caricature a man who never had a car with a final ride to the grave in a hired limousine?
By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
A matriarch dies. A frenzy ensues. The story of funerals in southern Nigeria. The real mourning doesn’t last long because the need to impress people at the funeral kicks in immediately. Family members begin to break their heads to raise funds to magnify themselves by a grandiose funeral.
Culture says the dead should be honoured. But why caricature a man who never had a car with a final ride to the grave in a hired limousine? Some who died in cringe-worthy circumstances of abject lack are sometimes buried with stubborn lavishness. Funerals can rightly be carnivals. Life without colorful rituals will be drab. But funerals need not be farcical. They are gradually becoming the summary of our vanity and blooming hypocrisy.
There is a new one. A man’s father dies. One of the man’s audacious friends collects the man’s close and distant friends’ phone numbers, gathers the people without ceremony into a WhatsApp group. “A committee of friends to help give our friend’s father a befitting burial.” That’s the pitch. The idea is noble. Perhaps. People are conscripted into this burial committee only to raise funds.
Opinions aren’t invited. Sometimes, in the more irreverent groups, minimum contributions are publicly stated, shamelessly. Those who can’t meet the minimum financial standards are advised to disappear from the group. In a particular group, one hundred thousand naira was set as the minimum. A man in that group couldn’t bear the shame of leaving; he borrowed and contributed.
Three weeks after the formation of one other group, the sum of one hundred million naira had been realized. One hundred million naira gathered overnight to bury a man who lived a modest, simple life in a village in Anambra state. When I sought to know the magic for gathering funds, I was informed of the beneficiary’s habit of donating huge sums to his friends for funerals. So he was reaping where he had sown. That’s the transactional side of the business. Contributions are steadfastly recorded and remembered. Folks join clubs to acquire the clout they need to mesmerize their kith and kin at their parents’ funerals.
A friend buried his mother a few years ago. Many big clubs attended. He spent fifty million naira on wines and whiskeys alone. There was a huge stage for popular musicians. They performed till the next day. They cost many millions too. The huge air-conditioned tents that have become the vogue cost him tens of millions. The hearse was a train.
The gold-plaited casket rode on a horse-drawn carriage through the dusty earth road between the church and family house. A limousine hearse followed the liveried animals behind. People marveled at the display and praised my friend. They said he had raised the bar. He spent millions organizing souvenirs. He was generous with his souvenirs but not the wines. Some of the wines cost 1.5 million per bottle; they were given by hand to worthy VIPs.
In another funeral by a more calculative man, those who brought cheques on the day of the funeral were made to take them out of the envelope. In many communities in Anambra, funeral cash gifts are presented to the chief mourner in public. It’s part of the glitz. That day, with the other shrewd mourner, a cheque’s size determined what the cheque bearer got as a souvenir. Some got raw trays in reward for their miserliness or poverty, perhaps. Some got television sets and generators. Drummers were everywhere. People took notice and ranked people.
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In some villages, years after the events, funerals are still discussed. They have become a source of bragging rights for the living. Sometimes people zip up their purses so that a sick relative’s medical treatment doesn’t consume the money that would be used to give the ill person a colorful funeral.
Funerals can fetch profits. Besides cash gifts, real profits can come from the sales of asoebi—uniforms. It’s easy. A strong woman in the deceased family will choose different cloths for different groups that will attend the funeral. She will contact traders who import bales of cloths from India. Often she will be advised to opt for fairly cheap materials to maximize the opportunity. Bought in bulk, the fabric will come cheaper. A ten thousand naira per person fabric can quickly become a fifty thousand naira asoebi. She will parcel them out to the homes of friends and family, practically forcing these innocent folks and well-wishers into a near compulsory purchase of cloths at 400% profit to the funeral organizers.
The churches have tried to discourage funeral ostentation by decreeing quick burials. But the madness has spared the church. The Bishop will attend the funeral of the big shots. It doesn’t matter if they died as world-acclaimed drug barons. The senior clergy will depart with huge gifts. If an ordinary man dies, the Bishop won’t attend. Water finds its level. If a poor man dies, then his family will have to settle his debt with the church. Many denominations don’t overlook these things. If the debts aren’t resolved, the church might boycott the burial ceremonies entirely. Many poor folks who served the church have been excommunicated at death.
Death has tried in vain to teach us a lesson.