At 30,000 ft your mind drifts. Some people in the room were visibly shocked. “Oh God is that all?” when the donations were read out. We’d taken in roughly 600 UKP, compared to the outlay in five figures. It sounds coarse, inappropriate even to some, but inside the compassion wrapped event of mourning lurks the peripheral presence of a figure who appears after the last well wisher has left.
Wearing horn rim spectacles and clutching a ledger this caricature is largely anathema to Western culture. But she or he exists scuttling along, making that grand entrance after the cinematic climax of celebrations. They’re here with me now as I emerge from a brief nap. The gaze of the horizon is percolated by wonder and fleeting thoughts. Death!
The grief and love story, the church services, gift-giving and celebratory dances are part of the elaborate tradition packaged into a 36-hour spectacle in Ghana’s way of doing funerals. This is the way Ghanaians see off their loved ones. Uniquely, a no-holds bar event.
“This is tradition, not ritual” at each turn said the elder a mantra that began to feel like administering behavioural therapy.
Much of the last 36-hours has been prepped over many days and weeks through direction, various levels of consultations, negotiations, and wish-lists. This isn’t a gripe, but funeral proceedings are as familiar to Ghanaians as much as they are foreign to diasporas — which is where we’re placed. Then there are differences between groups. My father was Ashanti, from the hinterland; my mother was Fanti — from the coastal ports. We, the siblings, could not rely on muscle memory from when our dad passed a decade ago to move smoothly.
Much has be written about these spectacles from the outside; just “google” “Ghanaian funerals”. Some people find their future spouses at these gatherings. However, to be intimately involved in one, demands a call on a range of human characteristics. Not all pass off peacefully a good friend at our Mum’s event tells me. Love when you’re no longer living comes at a cost and it can split families, close and wide.
In Ghanaian culture, “family” carries a distinctively different meaning one must also reconcile.
Once your mother/ father passes she/he belongs to elders, their siblings and extended family, not the children. It’s tradition and upheld by the courts. Yet it is the children whom must meet the costs to ensure a respectable event. We liked to believe we knew what that was, but there’s the spectacle of the Joneses — worrying what people might say, so the envelope and accessories are literally pushed.
Such is the cost that it is not uncommon for diaspora to take out loans, which in turn creates its own narrative. Lavish ceremonies can be misconstrued as a sign of wealth.
Ghana has placed itself in the flux of transition. In the current president’s Nana Ado- Kuffour term he’s sought to radicalised the state by the introduction of free education for secondary school children. Perhaps publicising bereavement insurance to soften the landing for many diaspora could be something on the agenda.
When we heard the news of mum’s death at 11ish on a Monday morning we were numbed and shocked. Mum was a day away from coming to the UK, her second home. My relationship with mum had dipped somewhat. I wasn’t alone. We were told she had spent the day dancing and churching. She was 85 years of age but could easily be mistaken for 70. She loved life and it loved her back.
The news brought grief. First there was the One Week. It’s an occasion to bring family, friends and well wishers under one roof. Mum had her One Week in Ghana and one in London. Then the denouement: three days of events in Ghana. She was an ebusiapanin (elder) so it carried some significance. Then the service in Ghana followed. Three days with a break after the first of various rituals, sorry traditions, culminating in a celebration of life.
By eight O’clock, emotionally exhausted, the ledger figure enters for unfinished business. We’re called into room, donation envelopes opened, boxes turned over and the news is broken. A sharp intake of breath ensures.I think “get busy living before the business of passing”.