Joseph Quaye Amoo
 
Culture

Ghana’s Extravagant Funerals Drive Families Into Debt, Disturb Community Peace

 

Article Highlights

 
Guests sport the latest fashions, tailored from matching fabric, at a funeral in Accra, Ghana’s capital.  
Ghana

A typical funeral typically takes place for three days, attracting hundreds of guests and costing more than a year’s salary.

ACCRA, GHANA – On a recent Sunday in a suburb of Accra, Ghana’s capital, family and friends gathered happily for a celebration beneath the purple-and-white decorations of an outdoor venue, attendee Diana Kale says.

Although the scene resembled a birthday party or wedding, Kale was a guest at the funeral of a friend’s 101-year-old family patriarch in Jamestown.

Funerals in Ghana often take the form of raucous parties rather than somber occasions. It is not uncommon for the festivities to last an entire weekend, beginning Friday and ending on Sunday evening.

At the recent funeral Kale attended, she says the guests reflected the joyous mood in their dress. They wore clothes that matched the décor and admired each other’s outfits. Funerals here can be like fashion shows.

“For the fashion, most of the women were in new clothes with the latest styles,” Kale says. “You know that these are some of the occasions where you get to see new styles of clothes sewn. Sometimes you even want to know the seamstress or the tailor who designed the dress for them so that you can seek their services.”

As the party continued, scores of people danced their hearts out to the latest music, she says. Jubilant guests performed the acrobatic moves of the “azonto,” a popular dance craze in Ghana.

Some guests had even traveled from abroad to attend the funeral, Kale says. The family went to great lengths to host their guests.

“There were varieties of food to choose from, which included local and continental dishes,” she says. “The drinks also included spirited hard drinks and soft drinks, which one could choose from.”

The advanced age of her friend’s late grandfather merited a large party, she says, so his family spared no expense to honor him.

“Getting to that age is not very easy,” Kale says. “Therefore, it is a celebration of life.”

It was also an occasion for the family to prove to their neighbors that they had prospered, she says. Family members from around the world contributed resources, proving to their neighbors that they were able to provide their deceased with a fitting memorial.

But this funeral was not unique. Funerals have become extravagant affairs in Ghana that attract crashers and professional criers.

Kale says that at the funeral of her father in 2007, three professional mourners arrived uninvited to cry at the burial. They claimed that the event was boring and people were not crying enough. Her mother paid each mourner 20 Ghanaian cedis ($10) for their impromptu services.

Every weekend, the streets of Accra come alive with extravagant parties honoring the dead. Hosts go into debt to throw funerals more lavish than their neighbors’ celebrations. Some locals complain that these funerals encourage immoral behavior. Other members of the community say that these events disturb the peace. But the police say they are doing all they can to regulate these events.

A Ghanaian funeral typically lasts three days, and between 300 and 400 people may attend, says Nii Kwatei Olemla I, a traditional ruler of the Ga community in La, a suburb of Accra.

The majority of these are Christian funerals. More than 70 percent of Ghana’s population is Christian, according to the 2010 Population and Housing Census published by the Ghana Statistical Service.

An average funeral may cost between 9,000 cedis ($4,520) and 12,000 cedis ($6,030), he says.

This is not an insignificant cost, as the average household income in Ghana is just 1,217 cedis ($610) per year, according to the latest Ghana Living Standards Survey published by the Ghana Statistical Service in 2008.

Such extravagant funerals have become the norm only during the last 10 years, Olemla says. Society uses them to show off their wealth to the community.

Families go into debt to throw bigger funerals than their neighbors, says Pearl Sekafor Dormie, a student at the Catholic Institute of Business and Technology.

“Other families have done it, so you also need to do it,” she says. “If you don’t bury your dead well, you will end up putting the family to shame. Therefore, it has to be extravagant. Nowadays, you need to follow the status quo.”

No matter where the money comes from, the funeral must be over-the-top, she says.

Hosts have no choice but to spend money before, during and after the burial, says Felicity Dahoui, a 25-year-old student at the Catholic Institute of Business and Technology in Accra.

To prepare for the funeral of her grandmother, she says her family first improved their home for guests, which required substantial amounts of time and money.

Once the home was ready, they had to pay for guests’ transportation, the venue, decorations and food, among other costs.

“Food, for instance, is a must,” Dahoui says. “You need to feed the mourners who will attend the funeral. If the person is going to be buried in his hometown, people who move from the city to his hometown will have to be fed breakfast, lunch and dinner. You sometimes have to hire mattresses for them to sleep on, especially for those who will stay throughout the three days.”

Families do not only have to provide for their guests. People also crash funerals, taking advantage of the food, drink and celebration, Olemla says.

Families also hire disc jockeys for the celebrations. Guests purchase custom-made attire.

Georgina Sowah, a 26-year-old seamstress in La, says that her business booms during funerals just as it does during Easter and Christmas. Some clients may bring her three different types of fabrics because each day of celebration requires a new outfit.      

She charges her clients 20 cedis ($10) to 30 cedis ($15) for this work. But she will double the price if there is a time crunch and she has to work late into the night.

Some families even hire professional mourners.

“People even go to the extent of seeking the services of professional funeral mourners to come and cry at the funerals,” Dormie says. “When this is done, sympathizers will know how they cherish and love the departed brother or sister.”

Some say that such flamboyant funerals are immoral, encouraging competition and spectacle rather than reflection and frugality.

“It is so appalling!” Olemla says. “Rather than thinking of the dead ­– and the family he or she may have left behind and how they will be taken care of – it has become a competition and another way to party.”

Some parents even prioritize spending money on new clothes for funerals instead of their children’s school fees, he says.

“The women are mostly the culprits,” he says. “I was recently in a meeting trying to discuss how best to have the funeral at a minimum cost, and there were women who were not paying attention. They were rather selecting the cloth they will wear, when we don’t even know how we will raise funds to buy the coffin and other expenses.”

Unlike weddings, where specific people receive an invitation, funerals are open to all sympathizers and loved ones, he says. Families post obituaries throughout the neighborhood to announce the deaths of their loved ones, which is how gate-crashers learn about them.

“When they read that this person’s son is in London or the U.S.A., that’s when they know that the funeral will be grand,” Olemla says. “Nowadays, people don’t attend funerals because they are sympathizing with the bereaved family but because of their selfish interest.”

If a wealthy person in the community dies, families can expect more guests, he says. Gate-crashers know that they can sneak away from these parties with stolen food and drink.

“You see, the sad thing is that people move from one funeral to the other on the same day, getting food from various places,” Olemla says. “I can say that there are some people who don’t even cook on Saturdays because of the funerals.”

These freeloaders do not contribute anything, yet the family of the dead incurs huge debt, Olemla says.

Large parties attract family members that previously did not bother to stay in touch, Dormie says. When her uncle died, her family suddenly heard from distant relatives inquiring about the funeral.

“Could you believe that relatives from which we had not heard from in over five to 10 years immediately showed up and were even suggesting things and preparations for the funeral?” she asks.

When her uncle was alive and needed a job, she says, one of her family members refused to help him, saying that he could not mix family with business. Yet when he died, this same relative offered to contribute money for the funeral party.

Extravagant funerals often disturb the peace in entire neighborhoods.

“People sometimes wake up at dawn,” Olemla says, “and decide to disturb the whole neighborhood by singing on top of their voices, running [a]round and playing all sorts of musical instruments in the name of mourning, which is usually unfair to some of us who have come back from work very late and want to have a good night’s rest.”

Further, by the end of the festivities, waste litters the ground, and trash chokes gutters and drainage systems, he says.

“I will say that as a community, we have thrown law and order to the dogs,” Olemla says. “It brings some sort of inconvenience to the people within the community, especially people in the area. Music blares to the highest of volumes. Roads are blocked for close to three days!”

The police are ineffective at maintaining order during funerals, he says. One recent funeral blocked the road to his church for an entire weekend, forcing motorists to use a narrow alternate route.

“What if someone had scratched my car?” he asks. “Who then pays for the damage? Meanwhile, a whole street that is meant for vehicles and motorists was closed for funerals. Sometimes the road is blocked right in front of the police station, and the police seem unconcerned!”

But the police say they do all they can to maintain the peace during these events.

Those who wish to host any public event must request a permit from the police within four days to five days of the event, says Pascal Agyei, a police inspector stationed in La. The police unit then sends a representative to the venue for a feasibility study.

Feasibility studies take into account the size of the venue and the potential need to reroute traffic, Agyei says. The police will then grant a permit that outlines start and end times for the event, typically from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“The challenge is that sometimes families who are planning funerals, or any other public event, bring the notice to us a day to the program,” he says. “This does not give us the ample time to do any feasibility studies. Because the organizers have done all their preparations, they bring the notice very late.”

But the police may also find themselves at the mercy of the community, he says. If officers intervene, unhappy elders and traditional rulers may complain to police headquarters, and police chiefs may transfer the officers to a new station as a result.

The police need to enforce laws surrounding noise and order, Olemla says.

“The police should ensure that after a certain time we don’t make noise,” he says. “All music should cease, and the noise should also have a limit. There are those who are attracted by the music, yet they have nothing to do with the funeral.”

Meanwhile, Olemla says he is raising awareness in the community by going door to door and speaking publicly about laws surrounding noise and disruption.

Above all, families should focus on respectful and quiet mourning during funerals, as in the past, he says.

A decade ago, families simply laid the body of the deceased in the largest room of their house, he says. Sympathizers paid their respects to the family and left without fanfare.

But such a radical reversion is unlikely, Kale says. She doubts that the size or price tag of funerals will lower anytime soon.

“It has come to stay and will even increase,” she says with a laugh.