Death and Burials (August 2011)

I got word the other week that my Grandma suffered a heart attack. She was 84 and although not in particularly poor health, she was only getting older and weaker so something like a heart attack certainly wasn’t welcome. I got news from my family that the heart attack was having a serious effect on her health and although she could last anywhere from ‘days to months’, it wasn’t looking good. About a week later I received word that she had passed. These are the times when I very much so dislike working so far away from my family. I don’t have a problem being homesick most of the time but it makes it particularly difficult for me when there are things that matter a lot to me. Personally, I find ways to cope but I feel like I’m letting down my mother because I know that she would appreciate my support and presence. I forget sometimes that my grandma is my mom’s mother and I imagine it is a difficult time. That being said, when discussing if I should come home for the funeral, I don’t think it’s the most effective trip that can be made. I think when funerals occur it’s a very hectic time for everyone and it’s only after the dust settles that most people can actually reflect and grasp their emotions. So it was decided that I would stay here and luckily I was in Calabar so I could communicate with my family by phone and keep up to date with what was happening.

It only seems fitting that I should write about the customs surrounding death here in my region. First of all, as I have mentioned before, death is seemingly a much more frequent occurrence here. Whether old or young, I feel like someone dies weekly in my village and in the short time I’ve been here there have already been a few people that I was connected to that have passed. There are different traditions for young people and adults. In fact, when someone young (under 18) dies, there is very little fanfare and no proper customs are followed, rather the person is quickly buried and mourned. Also, if you commit suicide or are killed by a bullet, you are not allowed to have the same burial celebration nor are you permitted to be buried in the traditional location. These rules and customs vary greatly from village to village, in fact, all four communities I work with have similarities in burial customs but also great differences.

However, if you are an adult who dies a normal death, there are some pretty interesting customs that can occur. First of all, when word gets out that someone has died, the women in the community run around the community theatrically sobbing and shouting, ‘so and so has died’. I mean, literally any female who was close to the person in any way shape or form enters a sort of speaking-in-tongues like trance and when it appears to be every women in the village, I’m not going to lie, it’s kinda freaky. Even my closest female friends will completely ignore me until they have gone around the entire village and spread the word. I don’t want to belittle their sorrow but really the only way to describe it is theatrical and it appears to me that everyone is trying to outdo everyone else when it comes to whimpering and yelling.

After the initial announcement, things get a bit complicated. It really depends on your economic and social status in the community. The closest person in the village to me that has died can be considered middle/upper class in the village so I’ll describe the events that have occurred with his death. First, they will commission a group to play drum and sing traditional songs, further announcing the death. There is typically a group of about 5 or 6 that have different types of drums and they sing traditional songs about life, death and ‘the order of things’. Some people choose to go the more ‘modern’ route and commission the church band to come play gospel and religious songs. Either way, this music is played until the body is embalmed. This is the traditional way of preparing the body and once the body is embalmed(usually takes a few days), then the real festivities can begin.

Appropriately called a ‘burial’, the burials are more or less a two day party. It is common for the family to purchase rolls of clothe and sell it to people who are close to the deceased. This means that all the family and close friends are wearing the same ‘design’ during the burial days/nights. Some people also produce custom t shirts with an image of the deceased, their date of birth and death and an inspirational message. I have actually purchased one of these and am a proud owner of a shirt with an obituary on it.

The first day of the burial is quite tame, with a sound system playing music and a roundtable set up for the closest family members. People will come by and give their condolences in the evening and as the sunsets it morphs into a kink of party/celebration. Lot’s of dancing, kai kai and food . The dancing typically goes on until the late hours of the morning, sometimes even till sunrise. The next day is the real big celebration time and it pretty much consists of the same activities as day one, only cranked up a few notches. The burial will then occur in the evening time and people are typically buried inside their family’s compound. This was quite shocking to a tourist we had visiting us and I explained how strong the belief in ancestral spirits is here and how keeping your ancestors close to home is a quite natural way of thinking. She was disgusted that they did not consider the health implications of housing a dead body inside a house (shallow burials). Another interesting custom is that if the person dies and they are young (below 35), it is standard for those who are the same age as the deceased to cover their skin with mud or chalk to show their connection to that person and the unfortunate early passing.

When I explain to my friends our burial customs, especially cremation, they look at me with the same look you probably have on your face right now. They view it as disrespectful to put your deceased loved ones in a faraway plot of land next to a bunch of strangers. And if that’s not disrespectful enough, they can’t even comprehend why someone would want to be cremated. It’s like we’re just begging for our ancestors to haunt us. It’s quite interesting because although they are mostly Christian, they seem to separate a deceased person’s dual fates; one is seemingly the traditional ancestral presence in the village and with the family and the other is sitting next to Jesus in heaven.

Another interesting aspect of post death customs is that every year they will hold an ‘occasion’ to celebrate the passing of their loved ones. This means every single year they will put on an event similar to a burial, just without the actual burial. It’s kind of funny to me because they don’t make a big deal of birthdays at all, yet they will celebrate these anniversaries of deaths. Birthdays are temporary but anniversaries of death occur every year for the rest of your life. And if you are the last one to die in your family you are responsible to put on these expensive and elaborate occasions several times a year. It is pretty cool though because they tend to approach burials and occasions with a celebratory attitude rather than a mourning attitude, which I think is my preferred way of thinking about things.

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