On The Politics of Being Mortal



Burial Rites
NOT counting my student days, 1947-51. I have spent my life on university campuses in Nigeria, both at Ibadan and at Lagos. These are residential universities where faculty, staff, students, workers, and their families live, and they have, inevitably, become communities, with a multicultural ethos of their own. Often enough, we have had to arrange funerals. The University of Ibadan has its own cemetery, while a public cemetery lies close to the gates of the University of Lagos.

In the 1960s, when the expatriate community was still large, a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology died at the University of Ibadan at the age of 50. He had been very popular, and many women on campus, both Nigerian and expatriate, were his patients. He had not been much of a churchgoer, and there was some awkwardness about arranging a secular funeral for him. He was of South African-Indian origin but had completed his medical education in Britain, and his wife was English.

His cousin, who was a Professor of Paediatrics at the university, took charge of the arrangements until the brother of the deceased flew in from South Africa.

The body lay in state in the main auditorium to allow students and friends to pay their last respects; it was then moved to the chapel. During the service, the chaplain said a few words to console the family and the university community; and his brother, on behalf of the family, thanked the community for the outpouring of grief and concern. After the deceased’s interment in the university cemetery, his friends retired to his house to console the widow. To relieve the tension, someone started serving drinks. Another got the bright idea to play some music and get people, including the widow, to dance, on the grounds that the good-hearted professor would not have wished for gloom at his funeral.

Contrast the situation if the deceased were a Nigerian professor, with the extended family based 150 miles away. The family would be contacted immediately, and they would be responsible for arranging the details of the funeral in consultation with the widow. If the deceased were Muslim, prayers would be said, he would be interred as soon as possible, often in the family compound, and traditional rites would follow, especially at the eighth- and fortieth-day prayers. If Christian, even if not a regular churchgoer, it would at once be assumed that the funeral would embrace elements of both the Christian and the traditional customary rites.

For the practising traditionalist, church services would of course be dispensed with. Otherwise, there would be a service of songs at his campus residence on Thursday. On Friday, his body would lie in state in the auditorium for a couple of hours, then would be moved for the farewell service in the chapel. His body would then be taken to his hometown for the traditional wake-keeping that Friday night.

The basic aim of the rites is to get the family and the community to accept the fact of his death. Various age-grades and other associations to which he belonged in the community or the church would come to pay their respects with appropriate rites, but it would be predominantly an affair of the extended family. His oriki would be chanted again and again. These are praise-verses embodying elements from the different segments of the extended family, thus indicating his connections, and yet in their unique conjunction signifying his individual identity.

The body might be laid in state on Saturday morning for the general public to pay its respects. There would then be a service in the home church, followed by a party. The traditional ceremonies would usually go on until the eighth day before the widow could return to campus, and she would have to observe a period of mourning.

An essential feature of the ceremonies is that the different branches of the extended family get together and the children get to know them. Formal meetings are held to deliberate on the implications of the death for the family and what adjustments have to be made because of it.

There was one particular burial over which I had to preside as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos. During a student protest outside the university gates, the police shot a student in the knee; the bullet cut through an artery, and he bled to death. The government wanted him buried quietly. His mother lived in Lagos, and his brothers and sisters were close to the student leaders who wanted to carry his coffin to bury at a cemetery downtown. I decided that the whole university community, and not the students alone, was involved; that the students should arrange with the deceased’s family to collect the corpse and bring it to campus; that the deceased must be laid in state at the Union Building so that the students could come face-to-face with the reality of death and understand that, whenever they planned demonstrations, it could lead to death. The whole university community then accompanied the body to the chapel and, thereafter, to the cemetery.

It seems obvious that the awkwardness in the arrangements for the burial of the professor of obstetrics arose partly from the concept of a secular funeral, and partly from the fact that, though of Indian origin, he was British, from a Western culture that feels ill at ease in dealing with death. Some scholars argue that this “pornography” of death is a phenomenon of the twentieth century; others argue that the fear of death, or, rather, the fear of extinction, is a fundamental component of Western thought that can be traced back at least to the seventeenth century, and that it is the decline of active religion that has highlighted the problem in the twentieth century.

Let me emphasize that the situation in Nigeria is far from static. Some fundamentalist Christians would like to play down the traditional aspects and use the victory of Christ over death as an excuse for denying the reality of death. There was recently the funeral of a forty-year-old man whose widow was not allowed to show grief as that might imply that she doubted that her late husband was happier with Jesus. (It is worth noting that most Nigerian Christians would argue that the message of the Resurrection is the conquest, not the denial, of death.)

There was also the case of the prominent politician with socialist connections. When he died three years ago, his followers regarded him as irreplaceable. He was embalmed like Lenin, and was to be put on show to the public once a month. His birthday, rather than the date of his death, continues to be celebrated as was customary before his death. Funeral parlours have not caught on yet in Nigeria, but a number of wealthy people around the politician’s part of the country seem to be competing in the design and construction of spectacular mausoleums. Accessible land for cemeteries is already hard to find in crowded cities like Lagos, but cremation remains “unthinkable”.

The only way to conclude these rambling thoughts is to attempt to clarify what I am saying and what I am not saying: I am not claiming that all we need do to promote stability and development in Africa is to revive the generational structuring of society and the veneration of ancestors. But I am suggesting that we are not doing, and are not likely to do, any better by merely abandoning these and promoting the individualism and the class structure of Western society.

Neither am I claiming that American society will solve the problems raised by [Alfred G.] Killilea merely by constituting age-set associations and venerating the dead. But I do suggest that there exist, even in Western thought, ideas such as the continuity of life and after-life that can be used to modify the rigidities of the doctrines of individualism, the class struggle, and unlimited progress.

Above all, what I am trying to say is that humanistic inquiry must stress the uniqueness of each individual person and each culture without negating the commonality of the human condition. We must continue to stress the uniqueness of our individual cultural identities without denying the richness of our cultural diversities. With all our diversity, however, an essential definition of the human condition is that we shall all die. It is this common mortality that makes us kin. Without death, there can be no life; the seed that will germinate must first die. We need not fear or be despondent about this. As the Tiv put it, “when the mushroom dies, the mushroom tribe lives on.”

The above piece is an extract from a review of Alfred G. Killilea’s book, The Politics of Being Mortal, for Transition Magazine, written in 1990 by the late Emeritus Professor Ade-Ajayi who passed away on August 9, 2014.

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