The high price of mourning


Ghana: In this poverty-stricken West African nation, extravagant funerals are expected - and staged at enormous expense.

January 22, 2003|By Ben Garvin | Ben Garvin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ACCRA, Ghana - The coffin's lid is opened, and the three daughters of 91-year-old Ethel Eugenia Ohui Sarbah wail. Their bodies fall limp, and they stand only with the help of silent, expressionless men. Tears flow, and cries of "Don't leave us, Mother! Don't leave us!" echo in the small, hot room.

This funeral in Accra is like most funerals in Ghana - immense. It cost more than 50 million cedis (about $7,000), an enormous sum in this Third World country where most people make less than $1 a day.

"It's been this way since our forefathers," says Nana Yaw Ayisi Boateng. "This is our tradition. We can't break it."

The five-day ritual began on a Wednesday night. Relatives and friends came in waves to Sarbah's home, sitting for a few moments to greet her four children. She was a good woman, they say, and she will be missed.

That evening, a 24-hour-a-day cooking cycle began, one that would span the entire five days. The women were preparing food for six meals, some with more than a thousand people. They moved methodically, as if time was the last thing on their minds. They cooked in an outdoor kitchen - a large slab of concrete with cutting boards and huge kettles perched precariously over piles of hot coals.

Mounds of diced herbs and heaps of garlic sat within easy reach of a woman stirring a bubbling vat of palm nut soup. Nearby, two women monitored a pot of boiling cow skin. Every now and then, a huge tongue broke through the oily surface. They waste nothing here. Chicken bones are eaten for their nutritious marrow, and fish heads are devoured whole.

On Thursday, close relatives piled into two buses and traveled across Accra to the mortuary where Sarbah's body rested, refrigerated. The funeral industry has yet to establish itself in Ghana. Most families embalm their own relatives.

On the way to the mortuary, Mary Ntow-Atiemo says: "When someone dies in your family, you have to watch everything. When you get over 40, you have to learn how to preserve the body, so when it comes your turn, you will know how."

Sarbah was a big woman. Back home, men struggled to remove her coffin from the ambulance. They yelled and shouted as they maneuvered it awkwardly through a narrow doorway into the decorated room.

It was a confusing scene. Everyone seemed to have a different idea of how to position the coffin for viewing. But as soon as the lid was removed and Sarbah's face was there for all to see, everyone seemed united in grief.

"You let sadness out, and you are free," says Emma Lartey, Sarbah's youngest daughter. "It is a real sign of mourning the dead. It is part of us.""

Sarbah was dressed in a white satin wedding dress, a curly wig and a sparkling crown. She wore lace gloves. Mourners began to slip small wads of cedis into the silk casket lining for her spiritual journey home.

"It's transportation money," says Ntow-Atiemo. "She's going to the other side of the river, and she'll need money for the ferry."

For the young, this custom can seem impractical.

"What can she do with the money?" asked Omar Khadi, Sarbah's 10-year-old great-grandchild. "She has no hands. It's a waste of money."

It was the first time he had seen a dead body. He kept his distance near the door. Later, he said he had run from the room after he thought he saw Sarbah's leg move.

That evening, at the wake, hundreds arrived to pay final respects.

"We live with extended family systems here," says Dorinda Lawson, a cousin of Sarbah's. "The family size is bigger here, so there's always more people. It's not like America, where all they care about is their wife and kids."

Friday was the day of the funeral. Sarbah's tribe, the Ga Adagme, is from Ada, a coastal village about 60 miles away. The mourners met in the morning to pile onto buses and "tro tros," small minivans crammed with 15 people each.

After a short service at the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, everyone headed for Ada. Deep potholes pocked the narrow road, and unpaved patches caused sudden clouds of blinding dust.

The driver floored the bus to pass a truckload of bananas at 75 mph. An oncoming truck honked wildly. Mangled cars littered the roadside.

At Ada, a small village with thatched huts and a small schoolhouse, the church chorus arrived to sing hymns. An 83-year-old man played drums. A woman stood over the open casket waving a cloth to scatter the flies.

It was 1 p.m. when the men carried the casket 200 feet to the grave site beneath a huge tree. They lowered it with ropes and finally dropped it. Dust erupted from the hole.

In Ga, the traditional language, the pastor read the final rites - dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Sarbah's daughters wailed their last goodbyes as the men began shoveling dirt.

Two days later, on Sunday, came the final thanksgiving feast. More than 1,500 people showed up. Friends of friends of friends were invited.

Sarbah's family, like many in Ghana, has relatives in Europe and the United States who sent money to help pay for the service. But even with this outside help, Sarbah's daughter Emma expressed reservations about the extravagance of the funeral.

"We're wasting money on the dead," she says. "Even if we didn't want to do this, we feel compelled to. It's tradition. And it's killing us."

Some village chiefs are aware of the financial strain. They have created regulations limiting the cost of the coffin, the amount people may donate and even how long a body may be kept at the morgue.

But these efforts have done little to reduce the cost of funerals in Ghana.

In part, that is because funerals here are for more than mourning. They also provide an opportunity to show respect for the family of the deceased.

"Death happens only once in a lifetime," says Seth Lyrea, a family friend of Ethel Eugenia Ohui Sarbah. "Everybody wants to come and pay homage. It's the way we show our love."

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