The Most Rev Dr. Brian Usanga caused a celebration in The Southeastern coast of Nigeria last week. By the powers conferred on him as the Archbishop of Calabar Ecclesiastical Province, comprising Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Rivers States, the revered Catholic priest decreed an end to extravagant funerals.
In the new burial regulation known as Calabar Ecclesiastical Province Special Burial Regulation, the archbishop abrogated various forms of burial jamboree including serving alcoholic drinks during funeral rites. The new canonical proclamation, tinted with a tone of papal infallibility, described expensive burials as a “shameless parade of sins.”
Accordingly, the regulation prescribed that (i) burial must take place within 14 days of death (ii) coffin and grave must be simple (iii) vigil consisting of prayers must end before midnight, without drinks and entertainment.
On the burial day the regulation stipulates that (i) only snacks may be served (ii) provision of soft drinks is optional and (iii) on no account should alcohol be served. Stiff penalties await violators of any aspect of the regulation and Catholics are expected to comply, of course, religiously.
Did I hear somebody say hallelujah? Give His Eminence a hand s-a-m-b-a-d-y. I can bet, even the protesting protestants are applauding the archbishop, even if Nicodemus-ly. Not because we are broke (I rebuke) but because all of us badly needed someone to bail us out of a pre-historic fad that now threatens to push bereaved families into the abyss of bankruptcy and starvation.
Writings of pre-historians like J. Maringer and E. Bendam show that ancient people buried their dead with food, furniture, ornaments, and tools which they dumped in the grave in the belief that the dead still needed those items in the world beyond.
In some societies, the burial of the dead was even accompanied by human sacrifices with the intention to provide the dead with companions or servants in the next world. Maringer tells one story in which twelve young Trojans were slaughtered and burnt on the funeral pyre of the Greek hero Patroclus. Similarly, royal graves excavated at the Sumerian city of Ur, dating 2700 BC revealed retinues of servant’s burial with their royal masters.
The Zoroastrian custom is however simpler but scary. Their dead is exposed on a raised platform to be devoured by birds of prey, in a bid to expedite their transition to heaven above. In India, the corpse is burnt in the fire. As the smoke goes up, the soul is believed to be released to ascend the sky. Moslems worldwide dispose of their dead within 24 hours of death.
Some other customs dismember the dead before burial. The Egyptians and Romans at various stages in the past removed the head, the viscera, and fingers before burial. In medieval Europe, the heart and entrails of important people were buried in separate places. William the Conqueror, for example, was buried in St. Etienne, but his heart was left to Rover Cathedral, and his entrails were interred in the church in Chalus.
A similar practice exists in Nigeria. Five Obas of Ijebu land, Ogun State, three weeks ago met on Easter Monday at the palace of the amiable Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona. The singular agenda was a review of the burial rites of Obas. In the end, they decided they don’t want to be buried the traditional way past Obas are buried. In the traditional way, Oba Adetona disclosed, the corpse of an Oba is cut into pieces, the heart is specially prepared and eaten by other Obas. Other pieces of the body are buried at various locations within the town but the head is preserved and given to the Oba’s family for veneration. Said Adetona to the press at the end of the meeting. “We want waivers, we want decent burial according to our religious beliefs. This is better than the older primitive cutting of the body and mutilation of the organ. Please bear with us,” the Oba pleaded.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a man in Calabar lament how he sunk millions of naira for the burial of his mother. He sold his house, sold one of his two cars, sold a plot of land, and still had to take a loan. Why? He had to build a house in his village, buy a designer casket, fly-in musicians from Lagos, buy cows, publish obituaries in newspapers, TV and radio, print posters, invitation cards, programs, assorted souvenirs not to mention choice food like salad, coconut rice, fried rice, and co.
For eight months, the body of the mother was roasted in the mortuary with mortuary fees put at more than N100,000. On burial day, as the legion of friends descended on his village, half the villagers and relations stayed away in protest. The few available ones vented their anger openly and police had to be invited.
What a price to pay! Enough to jar the nerves of bishops. Enough to rattle royal fathers. And the message must be drummed home: give your aging parents more befitting welfare than a befitting farewell. Dead men don’t eat salad nor drink big stout. It should not cost more to die than to live.