Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Funeral Rites and Condescension

Ugandan Funeral Procession

It is an unfortunate reality that even those who are trying to help others can develop condescending attitude about traditional behaviors. In the case of funerals, it's easy for the affluent to decide that the poor spend too much on funerals. This condescension is certainly something that muckraker Jessica Mitford displayed her book 'The American Way of Death'. However, considering all the very important functions that funerals serve, perhaps many of us in the West could learn from the funeral practices of the Ugandan villagers described in this excerpt from Katine Blog from the Guardian by writer Ben Jones.

An African funeral. Photograph: AP/Karel Prinsloo

The issue explained: Death in Katine
Many involved in development work in Africa take a dim view of burial societies, thinking too much money is spent on funerals. But burials are part of the social fabric of village life

One thing that saddens many of my friends in Uganda is the way we, in the west, bury our dead. The idea that you can go along to the crematorium in town and observe a handful of people saying goodbye to a family member seems strange to many in Africa. It is taken as a sign that Europeans are increasingly "lost", part of a lonely society that has little respect for the elderly and a less than compelling interest in anything beyond the here and now.
In Katine, as in the rest of Uganda, funerals are part of a civilised, respectable life. It is important that family members are buried with the participation of the community and with a sense of ceremony. Funerals can be costly affairs and they are organised by institutions known as burial societies. These societies go by the name of akiyo (literally "tears") or amorican ("together in loss"). They are among the most important institutions in the village.
Members pay a joining fee, after which their names are added to the burial book. When a family member dies all the registered members of the akiyo are summoned to a meeting to discuss how the burial is going to be organised. Individuals pay their dues and the money collected is used to pay for the coffin, cloth for wrapping the body and cement for sealing the grave.
The funeral itself typically lasts two to three days. The first day is the burial. Guests gather at the family home, where women busily work in the kitchens, cooking food, preparing beer, or serving and clearing up (women do a lot more work than men). The funeral takes place in the morning or early afternoon. In most cases prayers are said by one of the church leaders in the village. When the burial is over the treasurer reports the income and expenditures of the burial, as well as the remaining balance, which is handed over to the family.
At this point people are given food, and drink the local beer, ajon. This is the highpoint of the day for many of those who turn up. Burials are part of the social fabric of village life.
What I have described above is an idealised version of what actually takes places. The gender, age, economic condition of the household and reputation of the deceased mean that funerals differ. And yet there is also a strong belief that all members of the community should be accorded respect when they die. That is why burial societies exist, they offer people that assurance.
Many in the business of "developing" Africa worry about this, taking a rather negative view of burials and burial societies. They think that too much money is spent on funerals. With so many other pressing concerns, why waste money on those already dead? Funerals distract; they take farmers away from the fields, and mean that government offices, hospitals and schools are often understaffed.
As outsiders looking in on Africa it is important to understand the defining importance of funerals in village life and the level of investment people are prepared to make in burial societies. They have developed without the need for outside assistance or funding, and are more participatory and more democratic than other local level institutions. Ben Jones

1 comment:

Charles Cowling said...

Hear, hear, Patrick. The present-day obsession with cheap, short funerals is symptomatic of denial -- and of all manner of other spiritual failures in a society which ranks human worth according to economic value. Paradoxically, as these good people show us, a funeral need not cost the earth by Western standards. A good funeral must comprise all the necessary elements of a good funeral, most of which come free. The greatest of these is time.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization. dailyundertaker@gmail.com


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