Sitting with both hands neatly tucked in between his laps, a foot tapping to what his mind thought, and a teary-eye staring into space as though seeking the last traces of hope, Ibe Iheanacho let out with a voice obviously couched with anguish, "God, please don't let my mother die! I cannot afford her burial rites now."
Ibe is a petty trader with a titled mother. The woman, who suffers from diabetics, and had just suffered a second stroke attack that left her paralyzed and highly sick. Seeing his position and hearing his outcry, one would have thought that his heart was rent in sympathy for his ailing mother and not the underlying financial implications of the possible aftermath.
Sadly, he is not alone in this disposition to an ailing loved one. Amaechi Uzokwe, a business man, had threatened his brothers saying that, "I will run away and abandon all of you, should papa fail to recover from this illness and die as a result. I don't have even N1.00 for his burial rites."
The dispositions of the above mentioned people, leave much to imagine. One, what really is the immediate or intermediate cause of the "heaviness of heart" or "deep sense of loss" that precedes the "with gratitude to God almighty" one finds legibly written in posters of various sizes and colours announcing the death of a loved one? Two, is it really a heavy heart arising from losing the dead or the financial costs that will be directly or indirectly involved in giving the departed a befitting funeral? Three, along what lines does one begin to define a befitting burial?
In Igbo land, burial rites vary from one community to another as even within the same cultural zone, burial ceremonies are not uniform. However, the fundamental issue is that be it in Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu or Imo State, the cost of a burial ceremony is becoming high as the bereaved spend fortunes to give a befitting burial to the dead. Thus, for some people, despite the fact that the whole essence of a burial is to commit the dead to mother earth, and even coupled with the biblical injunction to "let the dead bury the dead," various activities and communal rites (Omenala) seem to have made the actual burial secondary.
However, regardless of the laid out procedures and requirements for the performance of obsequies, the level of honour varies and is dependent on the background, title, gender, relationship within the family and circumstances of death. Though this does not, however, change or alter the standard requirements, this is the plight of Ibe and Amaechi. Though they do not have the financial strength to meet up with these demands, necessity is laid upon them to do so.
In Ibe Ihenacho's village and its neighbouring communities in Imo State, you cannot even tell the kinsmen of a deceased woman that their daughter is dead. It will be assumed that you killed her. You only send word to her people, telling them that she is seriously ill and they should send someone to come join send her to a good hospital.
After seeing for themselves that she is dead, her children and members of their family will go at various times, in groups of male and female, with assorted types of drinks, food, kolanuts and all the stipulated items to inform their maternal relatives officially of their mother's death (though they are already aware). This is usually before any other rite can be performed and even the burial itself.
Ndi ogo- in-laws especially sons-in-law, are usually also compulsorily required to contribute and to a large extent finance the burial. The husband of the first daughter, the ada usually pays the highest. In Umuezearole in Onitsha, Anambra State, for instance, the husband of the first daughter of a titled man, the ozo title in this case, is required to present N1, 000,000 to the group to inform them of their colleague's death before any further arrangement can even be made towards the burial.
In some cases especially in Njaba, Isu and Orlu Local Government Areas of Imo State for instance, they may be required to present a cow and other items stipulated by the community. In parts of Mbano, Imo State, there is usually what is called iha akwa wherein in-laws of the deceased give gifts of various types of choice wrappers that are customarily presented to their sister-in-law, who is the daughter of the deceased as well as other female mourners in the compound of the deceased. And this is not usually without the aim of wanting to make them show how much they value the dead.
Further investigations revealed that in some parts of Nsukka in Enugu State, horses and native cows are used for burial ceremonies to earn the traditional title "Ogbuzuru", meaning the person has killed everything expected of him as far as burial rituals are concerned. Each horse cost over N70,000.00 while cow is between N120,000.00 depending on the size.
In Ozalla community in Igbo-etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State, sympathizers who pay condolences to the bereaved family stock different denominations of both foreign and local currencies on dry stick of palm fronds and present them as gifts.
In Nkanu land, masquerades entertain the people during burial ceremonies with each group trying to outwit the other to draw attention of the audience at the occasion. Sometimes, a member of the troupe climbs a palm tree with bare hands, apparently to show how gallant he is.
Burial ceremonies in Igbo land are usually a colourful and communal fanfare. Hence whenever and wherever an Igbo male or female dies especially adults, he or she is usually taken back to the village for burial. This no doubt witnesses a mass exodus to the village. Indigenes of the town, in various states and regions, are usually represented at the burial ceremony depending on the distance; so long the deceased was a member of the town union. These members also lend a helping hand in the preparation of food items and the cost of footing the burial where necessary.
During the ceremony proper, guests seat under canopies and sheds to indicate first of all, the families of the various in-laws, kinsmen, maternal relatives, indigenes of the town and other classes of guests, according to the wish of the chief mourner.
Expectedly, the chief mourner and his siblings as well as the in-laws organise food, assorted drinks, and traditional dance as well as live musical band depending on the financial strength of the host to receive the people who will come to the occasion.
According to their seating arrangement, food and drinks are served. In Njaba, Isu and Orlu local government areas, it was gathered that the feeding arrangement at the ceremony is usually never complete without fufu and any native soup being served.
It was gathered that in some instances, the chief mourner and his family, spend money in two ways Christian burial rites always precedes the traditional rites consequently doubling the budget for the entire burial ceremony.
And prior to the burial ceremony, the quantity of items such as the number of kegs of palm wine, brewed drinks, tubers of yams, goats, fowls and cows to be used for the event are read out to the chief mourner to avoid embarrassment on the day of the ceremony.
Interestingly, all of the costs and items enumerated by the kinsmen or clan for the burial of the deceased, do not include other compulsory items like caskets, the services of the undertakers, payment for the morgue where the body is kept until burial, and the hiring of funeral parlour among others.
Investigations by Saturday Tribune shows that the average 6 by 4 casket cost about N70, 000 while the average morgue will charge at least N10, 000, (with a certificate of death), to keep the body for two weeks before counting extra charges. There is no gainsaying that these amounts are probably beyond the reach of the average Igbo man.
It is even worse when the deceased (females especially) was not duly married according to traditional rites before death. In this case, the husband is usually made to perform the traditional marriage rites, including the payment of bride price to the full as part of the burial rites before actual burial can take place. Of course, this eventual burial does not disregard the full rites that guide it.
Thus, just like in the past when the hike in bride price came under sharp criticisms prompting the defunct Eastern Region under Late Owelle of Onitsha, Dr Nnmadi Azikiwe, to pass a law pegging bride price in Igbo land to enable Igbo youths marry at the right age, the high cost of burial seems to have become another emerging social problem in the region. Some have even argued that if the trend remains unchecked, burial ceremonies will be solely reserved for the rich that can afford the cost.
But authorities appear not to be perturbed by the nagging issue as investigation revealed that no state or local government area in the South-East, has any customary or state legislative law pegging the cost of burial ceremonies.
A top government official in the office of Chieftancy Matters in Enugu State, who preferred to remain anonymous, said even if there was law reducing the cost of burial in Igbo land, it will die a natural death like the one passed into law by the late Azikiwe's regime.
Mazi Sam Onwudiwe, a trader, who said he lived in Awka, told Saturday Tribune in Enugu that the high cost of burial was more pronounced in Anambra State because of their robust economic power, stressing that huge sums of money is spent by mourners in the areas like Awka, Nnewi and a host of others. "Go there and see things for yourself. The kinds of wine, gifts you will see on display. It is traditional burial but a lot of money is involved, buying of cows notwithstanding," he added.
Against the above backdrop, saying that burial ceremony is expensive in almost every part of the Southeast geo-political zone, is stating the obvious. Many of the bereaved persons often go into huge debts in order to give their dead the stipulated befitting burial and this poses another question; where does one begin to draw the line between befitting burials and bankruptcy?