Death concludes the life cycle. It is considered a change from a physical life to a spiritual life. It is believed that the dead person leaves the physical world for the spiritual world. Therefore, when a person dies, the traditional Ghanaian believes that, he is making a journey to the next world, where he will live as an ancestor.
Death is said to be a bridge between the world of human beings and that of the spirits. Therefore, when a person dies, it is believed that he continues to have contact with the living. Thus, the ceremonies and rituals performed for the dead emphasize the unbroken family relationship between the living and the dead. Let us now find out how funeral rites are performed by the traditional Ghanaian.
i. Rituals for the Dead
When a person dies, relatives perform funeral rites. They give the dead a fitting burial and later offer sacrifices of food and drink to the spirits of the dead. The dead on their part play an important role in the lives of their families. Their role is to guide and protect them. They also serve as the elders of the family in the spirit world. Wherever there is death there are carefully planned ceremonies and rituals. For example, there are rituals for the burial, funeral, and the living dead. The traditional Ghanaian believes that unless the proper rites are performed the spirit of the dead will not be able to join the spirits of his ancestors. But if the proper rites are performed, then he would be welcomed.
When death comes, it concerns everybody in the community. Although there are differences in the ceremonies and the rituals performed for the dead, all communities in Ghana treat the corpse according to the sex, age, and status. For instance, among most communities, the funeral of a child is different from that of an adult. There are few rites and little weeping. Funerals of chiefs and queen mothers are different from those of ordinary people. Among some communities, when a person dies through an accident, child birth, or suicide, it is considered to be ‘a bad death.’ People who die in any of these ways are not given the usual burial and their funeral rites are not performed. When these are done, it is believed such incidents will occur again.
Ghanaians regard funerals as important anniversaries for the dead. They are considered memorial days on which rituals are performed. Such memorial days may be observed at different intervals by different communities. Some celebrate it three, four, eight, fifteen, forty, or even eighty days after death. Others observe it six weeks or a year after death. There are stages in the funeral celebration. Each stage has special rites performed.
ii. Preparation of the Corpse:
When a person dies, the corpse is washed and then dressed according to the age, sex, and status of the person. The body is then laid in state for mourning. The washing, dressing, and laying in state of the deceased are mostly the duty of the elderly women in the family. The public is not allowed to see them; they are believed to be sacred. Among the Kasena, only corpses of females are washed. Some communities like the Sisala and Dagaaba dress the corpse of old people in a gown and a pair of ‘togas.’ Among the Wala and Birifor, the dress is turned inside out and all colored threads and pockets are removed. The belief is that by dressing the dead in this way, their spirits are prevented from taking any property away.
In some Akan, Ga, Nzema, and Ewe communities, the corpse is dressed in a rich kente cloth with gold chain. However, these are removed and replaced with a simple dress before the corpse is put into the coffin.
iii. Pre-burial Mourning:
There is pre-burial mourning when the body is laid in state either at the family head’s house, the father’s house or the deceased’s own house. Some people lay the body in state in an open porch in the house or in the sitting (living) room. In communities like the Dagaaba, Birifor, Sisala, and Aculo, the corpse is laid in state outside the compound. Other communities like the Kasena do not expose the corpse to the public. It is only seen by the relatives of the deceased.
Whilst the body is lying in state, relatives, friends, and other sympathizers come to mourn with the bereaved family and to pay their last respect to the deceased. The arrival of mourners to the funeral grounds is mostly accompanied by wailing. The women in particular sing dirges that tell how sad it is that the deceased is no more. Usually, a close relative is selected to sit at the bedside to receive sympathizers.
It is the custom in most communities to present gifts while the body is lying in state. Among the Akan, gifts such as coins, handkerchiefs, cloths, rings, and a calabash are presented. The Gonja give kola nuts, drinks, and money when the body is lying in state. It is believed that since the deceased is traveling to the spirit world, he needs money for his or her fare and other expenses. The calabash, for example, will be used for drinking water.
The time of burial is the most dramatic and sorrowful period. There is much wailing and singing of more dirges. All this is because the people feel they will not see the deceased again.
Most families have their own graveyards or cemeteries. Some communities pour libation to “Asaase Yaa” (Mother Earth) to ask for permission to dig a grave for the burial. The grave diggers are given drinks such as schnapps and such items as money, fowls, or sheep depending on what custom demands in the community.
In some communities, especially in the Northern and Upper Regions, a diviner is called to find out the cause of the death before burial. Prayers will then be offered for the dead. There is also the custom of sweeping away the corpse (Piza). By this rite, they get rid of any powerful medicine the deceased might have possessed when he was alive. It is believed that if this is not done, anybody touching the corpse would die. The Dagaaba also carry out the rite of removing the clan totem (‘Ligi kyirun’) before burial. In this rite, a fowl is passed over the body and the following words said: “Don’t allow the totem or our clan to go with this corpse, nor our bearing of children.” The fowl is then sacrificed.
Putting the corpse in a coffin is seen by only a few relatives. In some communities, it is at this time that special rites are performed to break the relationship between the deceased and the immediate relations: widows, widowers, and children in particular.
The coffin is usually provided by the widower or widow as the case may be, the children of the deceased, or any other persons as custom demands. Gifts presented are put in the coffin. In some communities, the last person to present a gift is the widow or widower. Gifts such as coins, calabashes, small piece of cloth, and rings are put in the coffin before it is covered.
In some communities, widows or widowers of the deceased are not allowed to join the funeral procession to the cemetery. They only do so up to a distance and return. At the grave side, some people pour libation before the coffin is lowered into the grave. In some communities in the Northern and Upper Regions, married young men are buried in loin cloths. The unmarried young men are buried almost naked, whilst elderly men are buried in a blue dark gown, a white cap and a dark blue cloth. Women, on the other hand are buried naked.
In some communities, any mourner returning from the grave side is expected to wash his hands. For this purpose a container filled with water is put at the entrance to the house. It is believed that if this is not done, the person might bring some bad luck from the cemetery.
v. Mourning after Burial:
In most communities, mourning goes on for at least eight days after burial. During this period, very close relatives fast. They stay away from the main food of the community and may live on drinks, eggs, kola, porridge, and so on.
vi. The Funeral Day:
In Ghana, the funeral day is different from the day of burial. It is a day usually set aside by the family to mourn and remember the dead. This day is a great social occasion. The day is announced to all relatives and friends. Nowadays, in their preparations, people even hire chairs and canopies, invite band groups, and provide drinks and food for visitors and mourners.
On the night before the funeral day, wake is kept. During this time, there is singing of traditional songs, dancing, and firing of musketry. On the funeral day, close relatives sit together at a particular place where they can be easily recognized. They wear either black, red, any dark-brown cloth or “adinkra” cloth. In the Northern and Upper Regions, mourners put on their best ‘Fugato ‘batakari’ or ‘torso.’ Akan widows and widowers wear raffia around their elbows. This signifies that since the spouse is dead there is nobody to depend on. In fact the widow or widower is compared to the raffia which is light. Mourners in other communities may put leaves between their lips to signify that with the death of their partners they have nothing to eat. In other communities, sympathizers do not shake hands with the widow or widower. In the past, some close relatives like children, widows, and widowers were shaved.
On the funeral day, when sympathizers arrive, they go round to shake hands with members of the bereaved family who are seated at one place. All sympathizers give donations to help to pay for some of the funeral expenses. Such donations are announced to the public.
Among the Kasena, two funerals known as ‘lare’ are performed for important persons. The Kiema and Nankani perform a funeral called “lua” for ordinary people. The ‘lua’ lasts for three days in the case of men, and four days for women. A few days before the ‘lua’ is held, they perform a ceremony known as “zare yibele.” At the ceremony, each kadiwaka (woman with parents living on the compound of the deceased) pours little shea butter over the grave of the deceased and spreads it with her hands.
On the ‘lua’ day, mourners put on their best clothes. There is drumming, singing, and dancing. Speeches are made in honor of the dead. Anybody who wishes to make a speech must donate at least a fowl to the musicians.
Before the ‘lua’ ends, the bow, arrow, and quiver of the deceased are wrapped in a mat and burnt on the compound if he is a landlord. If not, the burning is done outside the house. In case of a dead woman, her calabash, basket, pot, and a few straws from her mat are burnt on the path leading to the compound. A dog and a sheep are sacrificed to mark the end of the funeral celebration. This sacrifice is believed to enable the spirit (kyiru) to join the ancestral spirits.
Among the Gonja, about four important, separate funerals are held for the dead. There are “ntetensa”, “bukapulia”, “ntenensunu”, “ntohenhena”, and “kete.”
In most communities, funeral expenses are shared among the clans men and all relatives of the deceased.
vii. Life After Death:
Ghanaians have various beliefs about where the dead go. Some believe that the dead make a journey to the spirit world.
They, however, have different answers to where this world is. Some believe that the world of the ancestors is underground, while others locate it around their hometowns. Still others believe they go to God. Those who locate it around their hometowns bring their dead relatives home for burial. If for some reasons the corpse cannot be sent home, some parts of the corpse such as the hair, finger, and toe nails are brought home for burial. The reasons for bringing the corpse or parts of it home for burial is to ensure spiritual contact with the dead. The soul begins its journey to the ancestral or spirit world as soon as the funeral rites are performed. Those who believe the dead have to travel to the next world, perform certain rites to make the journey easy. For example, a dying man is given some water to drink before his last breath.
In communities where coins, weapons, food, etc. are buried with the corpse, the belief is that these items will help the dead on his journey. For example, before the dead person gets to the next world, he will have to cross a river, a valley, or climb a mountain. The belief is that the coins are used to pay for being ferried across the river. It is believed that at the end of the journey the dead retain the status they had when they were alive.
Whilst they are in the next world, they have spiritual contact with the living. It is believed that they visit home often at night and they can appear to relatives in dreams to give them information and advice. For example, they can show where some valuable items like gold or money is hidden. They can also give warnings especially about their children or property if they are not properly taken care of. Such warnings are taken seriously because it is believed that if the living failed to heed their warnings they would die.
Influences on the Performance of Funeral Rites:
Formal education, Christianity, Islam, other religions, and social and economic factors have influenced the performance of funeral rites. In the past, a person was buried on the same day that he died or soon after. Now, the method of refrigeration in the mortuary has made it possible to preserve dead bodies for a long time. This preservation enables relatives to organize themselves and prepare towards the funeral which is to a large extent a social affair. These days, funerals are announced on the radio and the television, in the newspapers, and through posters.
Most traditional people insist that they should be buried on the same day when they die. Christians and Muslims insist that traditional funeral rites such as putting coins in the coffins should not be performed for their members. They would not also permit the pouring of libation. But usually these instructions are ignored by the bereaved families.
Most families now conduct the funeral rites immediately after burial. This saves workers and people living away from home from traveling more than once for the same funeral. Before burial, Christians hold both burial and memorial services in the church.
It is now usual for most employers to buy a coffin and to bear some of the funeral expenses for their employees who die. This helps to cut down the funeral expenses of the family.
Some families allow their dead relatives to be buried where they stayed or died. This is to reduce cost in transportation. However, the funeral of such persons is performed later in their hometowns.
The churches advise relatives to serve soft drinks at funerals instead of alcoholic drinks to reduce cost and prevent drunkenness. But the customary rites are always performed with alcoholic drinks, especially schnapps. Beverages such as coffee and tea are served at wake keepings in order that mourners can keep wake. Some sweets together with ginger and kola-nuts are served.
Now, most families try to entertain their sympathizers and mourners with snacks and food. This is because most of them come from far away places. This practice has rather increased funeral expenses.