a journey – part 2

This is Part 2 of my journey to a Ghanaian funeral. Read Part 1 here.

The morning of the funeral, we rose so early the world was still dark. As we arrived at the village, the sun was rising and a low mist hung over the town.

First stop was the family home where we waited on the street for the mine bus to arrive. It had been travelling since 2am, crammed full of workers wanting to pay their last respects. Once everyone had arrived we arranged ourselves in single file, men first, then women, and entered the family home.

Many of the older Ghanaian houses are arranged in a square with an open central courtyard. Chairs were arranged in the courtyard and the body lay in state in an open wing of the house. Upon a platform, with a canopy of lace decorated with faded silk flowers, lay the body.

We slowly, respectfully, filed into the courtyard, a long line of black and red mourning dress, all the women’s heads, but mine, wrapped in black scarves. I had been told of the custom to pay your respects to the deceased and then, (much like at the meeting the day after the death, but on a much larger scale), to file past the extended family, shaking hands and offering condolence. While my Greek heritage should have prepared me for some fairly vocal mourning, the culture shock once I entered the courtyard, was profound. Maybe 100, 200 people crowded into the courtyard, many of the women wailing, like a discordant chorus. If the wailing died down, another group of women would begin, like a vigil. The men sat reserved and stone faced about the edges.

We were invited to sit and a crate of minerals (fizzy drink) was placed in front of us, as a sign of welcoming. After a short time, the extended family rose, and filed past us, shaking our hands to formally welcome us. Stephen’s wife and her immediate supporters were not yet present.

Some other cultural differences include: it is totally acceptable to take photos and video, without asking permission, and there was a lot of footage taken of the deceased; which I found unsettling. I was told it was to show others who could not make it to the funeral, that yes, it was true. As proof he had indeed died. After the formal welcome, it is totally fine to wander out, even when the priest arrived to escort the body to church, there was little compunction for us to be present. Obviously this is a different matter if you are immediate family.

The arrival of the widow was, of course, gut wrenching. Stephen had died young and unexpectedly, leaving small children. But just prior to leaving for the church, there was a moment of Ghanaian practicality that broke my heart. Just before the body is placed in the coffin (behind a screen) to be escorted to church, the widow must remove her wedding ring, and leave it with her husband. Signifying to the world she is able, after a period of mourning, to marry again. It was heartbreaking. Till death us do part.

Being a village funeral, we walked en masse to church, with the church choir singing as we went. The service was in Twi, and was accompanied by the choir’s angelic singing. Again, fine to take photographs in the church, and I was secretly chuffed when I recognised the Lord’s prayer in Twi. What I found most interesting was the relative silence in the church. No more wailing, only heads quietly bowed in prayer and solemn recitations. Despite the language differences, it was culturally the easiest part of the day.

Again escorted by the choir, we walked to the cemetery where the plot had been prepared. A six foot pit which had been lined with cement 20cm thick. There was the classic jostling for a good view, again with more photographs being taken. But the widow and her immediate supporters do not attend the burial, visiting the grave later. While the grave was then filled with dirt, just like a funeral in Australia, I was told later that at some funerals a cement lid is placed over the cement box, enclosing the coffin. Only then is dirt heaped on top, but effectively preserving the coffin and the deceased underground. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is not a literal translation here. Cremation does not seem to exist in Ghana. I imagine attitudes are significantly influenced by so much evangelical talk of hellfire, so it is not an option.

After the burial we were fed at local spot. It was good to sit in the large shady garden, have a chat, and a break from the emotion of the day. It caused much hilarity when I ate local food (delicious palaver stew and plantain) with my hand, refusing offers of cutlery. Afterwards we returned to the village square. Here large red and black canopies were arranged around the edge of the square, with a set of massive speakers, and in the centre a decorated table with a large photo of the deceased. When we arrived we again greeted the family, shaking hands left to right. This time the family were more formally arranged, with the senior men, resplendent in their black morning cloth sitting under one canopy, and the women, in their tailored black dresses with large pieces of blood red cloth wrapped about their waists, sitting under the next canopy. We then sat. Music, cheery hiplife, distorted from the massive speakers. At this point (cash) donations can be made to the family. At a small table under a tree, we made our donations as individuals and from the mine, we were handed a receipt of our donation and it was also recorded in a book. After the donations were complete, another wall of culture shock hit me, when the donators name and amount of the donation was read out over the loud speaker! The money goes towards payment for the funeral, and any remaining is shared amongst the extended family; not directly to the widow as I would have expected.

After the donations the family rose and again formally welcomed us, a long snaking line of brief handshakes as they filed past us. I have never shaken so many hands in my life, over the course of the day it must have amounted to hundreds. And then, with the music blaring again, it was time to dance.

In all it was a sad, exhausting day. But I did leave feeling I had said my goodbyes to Stephen, paid my respects to the family, and with a greater understanding and appreciation of Ghanaian culture. Throughout the day, my overwhelming sense was one of community and practicality. From people pitching in to help when things need to be done; to the chorus of wailing, which while exhausting, was not the reserved mourning of our anglicised culture, but a release of emotion and a farewell to the deceased.

5 responses to “a journey – part 2

  1. Chrissie, I am sure the family really appreciated you attending, it will have meant a lot to them. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you. Good on you. Victoria

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  2. Pingback: Looking to go out in style? Ghana’s fantasy coffins. | six degrees north·

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