By ANIEBO NWAMU
I experienced culture shock for the first time not in America or England but in Bauchi, Nigeria, sometime in 1990. A colleague had walked into our office at the Federal Secretariat, one morning, to announce that his mother had died the day before. He first spoke in Hausa, and because at that time I could understand the language only “kanda kanda”, he interpreted what he had said.
“Your mom! What have you come here to do then?” I exclaimed, almost in disbelief.
“Work na. We buried her yesterday,” he replied.
Before then, I had heard that it’s the culture of Muslims to bury the dead within 24 hours, but I had not imagined how a bereaved person from my own community would cope if they were not surrounded by mourners at least for a few days. And how much more when I later heard another worker explaining to his boss that “I didn’t come to work yesterday because I lost my wife”!
During private conversations in Lagos, Umuahia, Port Harcourt and elsewhere, few friends have disagreed with me whenever I say that Muslims are the ones who truly understand the meaning of human life. The culture of burying the dead within one day existed in my village while I was growing up in the 1970s, and even Christianity prescribes a similar rule. It has since been abandoned and many Christians, especially in southeastern Nigeria, now tend to lean towards archaic or abnormal practices. Not stopping there, some invent other traditions that encourage ostentatious living or display of wealth.
The people of the southwest are perhaps more modest, except that some spend a fortune on obituary advertisements in newspapers, even though they could be lacking in care for their “beloved father and grandfather” while he lived. In certain obituaries I’ve read well before the body has been buried, some people advise their departed relation to “rest in the bosom of the Lord” until they “meet again on the Last Day”.
For the past 21 years, the Catholic Church in my area has been striving to help people reduce expenses during burials and funerals. Many have been disobeying new rules, but the economic quagmire of the past decade has been quite useful. Little by little, the church authorities in several dioceses have been making things lighter for adherents: burial within three weeks, no funeral after one month, no more than one cow to be slaughtered, less food and drinks….
But the poor for whom the rules are being made don’t seem ready to help themselves. About 20 years ago, only one hospital had a mortuary in an entire senatorial district in my state, and it was always almost empty. These days there are no fewer than 20 in the same district, each almost always filled up. Failure to put a corpse in a mortuary has become a sign of lack. The body, the thinking goes, must be preserved until a time it would be accompanied back home in a motorcade with sirens, videographers and photographers. A wake must be observed and a Christian Mass must take place. Friends and relations must be taxed for uniforms, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, special dishes, beers, hot and soft drinks, decoration, hiring of furniture and other expenses. Many do borrow money; some who are unable to pay back their loans follow their loved one to the grave, if an invasive disease strikes!
Since the poor respects wealth a lot, it will take a wealthy person to change such retrogressive culture in a community. In my village, for instance, a professor buried both parents within 24 hours in their family compound. The poor have yet to comply! Perhaps more enlightened and wealthy folks should follow in the professor’s footsteps so everyone would fall in line, I have advised.
It’s in this light that I wish to pay tribute to a great Nigerian I consider as a trailblazer in the campaign to restore our lost values. The “big fish” is Dr Dozie Ikedife who breathed his last on December 11. When the former president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo died, his family respected his wishes by breaking all the “rules” invented by some misguided Ndigbo.
Dr Ikedife, a surgeon who trained in the UK in the 1950s, holder of many chieftaincy titles and chairman of several Igbo groups, former commissioner in both the old East-Central State and Anambra State, a Rotarian par excellence, father of seven prosperous professionals, and spouse of one, bade the world goodbye at age 86. In obedience to his wishes, the family buried him within 24 hours. They have yet to announce a date for friends and well-wishers to come for merrymaking in Nnewi!
The reason the Ikedifes acted as they did is contained not in the late doctor’s will but in the pages of the Daily Trust edition of June 24, 2018. A quote from an interview he granted the paper – it must have been his last interview with a major newspaper – has been making the rounds in the social media since he departed. I too have shared it a few times: “Once I am dead, put me in the grave and go away. Don’t come on condolence visit. Don’t come for funeral ceremony. I don’t want it; after all, is it of any use to me, a dead person? You are just wasting your time and giving yourself trouble. Even if you invite the whole Nigeria it doesn’t mean anything to me. If you invite 10 people it doesn’t mean anything to me. If you fire 100 gunshots, it means nothing to me. You see, people waste a lot of energy and sometimes money. Sometimes they borrow or sell things to give somebody what they call a befitting burial. So, I don’t need it. For me, a befitting burial is that you are sure I’m dead and you dig six-feet deep, wrap me in a mat, put me in the ground and cover it. After that, you may publish in the newspapers that ‘Dr. Dozie Ikedife has died and has been buried. By his direction and request, no condolence visits; no funeral ceremony.’ The reason for publishing it is that if you and I had an appointment, you would know that it could no longer hold. If you are owing me, bring the money and pay my family. If I am owing you, come and demand payment from my family. That’s it.”
So that’s it! Those were the sage’s words. The Igbo and the non-Igbo have useful lessons to pick from the former president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. And I wish Christian leaders too would learn from their Muslim counterparts: how to honour the dead, how to avoid unnecessary expenditure, and how to truly let souls rest in peace.
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