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The Convolution of a Nigerian Burial

By Eduek Moses


“I pray it doesn't rain. In fact, it won't rain." This was my aunt on the eve of my father's funeral. She spoke like raindrops were a curse. "Rain is the enemy."


This ideology conflicts greatly with that from the West; a Western funeral looks much better with the rain. You see, everyone's draped in black with black umbrellas to match. I know that comes across as a tired Hollywood stereotype, but it's plausible. Some believe that rainfall on a funeral day is akin to good luck, that the rain washes all pain away. Nigerians disagree. A common prayer in Nigeria is: "May the heavens hold their peace. The rain will not fall."


The reason for this prayer isn't far-fetched: Rain does not make for a great party. 


Funerals, originally, are events of deep sorrow, pain, and reflection. However, when someone passes in Nigeria—or anywhere else for that matter—the loudness of weeping depends on how old the person had been before their demise. The unspoken rule is this: "The older, the merrier." Funerals for septuagenarians and octogenarians are often tagged "a celebration of life" while much younger demises are seen as a "painful exit". It is not uncommon to see family members place more emphasis on the number of beer crates to be bought than on the memories they shared with the deceased. Even when the burial type is a "painful exit", petty squabbles occur over the idea of giving a befitting burial. The concept of a befitting burial is conveyed in how many souvenirs can be handed out, or how many bags of rice can be sent to a boiling cauldron, or how much noise one can make. It is as if everyone forgets that the star of this morbid story is the one who is on ice.


In Nigeria, lowering your loved one to the maggots can be a tiring process that is oftentimes shrouded in the concept of culture or cultural preservation. “Cultural preservation” is an ambiguous umbrella under which so many unnecessary activities are promoted. It is for this reason that many Nigerians sigh and shake their heads when you tell them you are burying a loved one. They know that you are in for a long haul.


My father passed in the COVID year and I got to witness the whole thing firsthand.


i. A cycle


It was two weeks after Dad passed. I was on a low bench, the shadows from a palm tree creeping over my arms and face. The men sat all around. In the centre of their wobbly circle, stood a stool. Two bottles of gin, biscuits, and a plate of groundnuts were placed on the stool.


"Son," they said in Ibibio, "tell us your business here."


It was one of those things that happened during these kinds of meetings. They called you to announce your business as if they did not already know the deets. Their poker faces were commendable though.


I stood and "explained" that my father had died. They nodded even though my Ibibio was not so fluent. They asked my mother to do the same thing. And then they asked my uncle to repeat my mother's statements in his baritone. It was like Groundhog Day.


At that moment, I could only ask one question: "What's the use?" 


The answer was in my hand. It was a piece of paper. On that paper was a list of things that, for some archaic reason, were required by the family for the burial to hold: Bottles of wine, biscuits, a certain sum of money, and more things that I had trouble finding relevance for. I asked my mother one time what happens if you do your business without involving the family.


"One day you will come back home. Maybe to marry or something, and they will not answer you," she said. "It's culture. It's how things are done."


Well, I think that kind of culture is inconsiderate. How and why do you cause so much stress and discomfort for someone who has just lost a loved one? Why do you prioritize your beer-thirsty stomachs over human empathy? 


Week after week, my mother and I waited in the sun just so that we could fulfill one rite or another. We sat in their circles many times, restating our business, reliving a memory we were trying so hard to forget. Whenever I complained, she only shook her head and replied: "There's nothing you can do about it. Don't you want to bury your father?"


When my mother said that, I stopped to reflect on the essence of a burial. The core of the whole thing is the moment the coffin suffocates under dirt or when the bone turns to ash. That is the burial. Every other thing is tied to societal norms or, as they say, culture. Every other thing is an attempt to make the activity a bit more palatable. I think that during a burial, everyone—especially the much older folks—is reminded of the reality of mortality so they need to down more drinks to obscure a truth they are afraid of.


ii. Wake


The wake keeping is done at the deceased's family house. My father's is a long bungalow with a lovely pavilion and a garden up front. That night I sat in his old bedroom, the one he used when he was my age. I stared at his photo on the desk. He was gone and now I had to endure. I had trouble sulking though. The claps from the sitting room vibrated through the thick walls, and the clatter of pots and pans came in from the backyard too.


My mother came into the room near midnight.


"The women are waiting for you. Tie your wrapper."


Another tradition. The night before the burial is usually for the women of the family to come around, cook, sing, and dance. The wake night is one of those occasions where Ibibio men tie wrappers and swivel their waists. I walked in front, my three sisters behind. When I reached the sitting room, I realized just why the claps were so loud. The women were those who would and could harvest cassava by hand, ride a motorbike through the rough village roads, and wield cutlasses in the face of a thick bush. Their arms jiggled as they clapped. They donned the signature look: Headtie, blouse, wrapper, smiles (genuine and fake). Their cries rose as soon as they caught sight of me.


"Look at Essien's son," some said. "He has become so big." 


"He looks just like his father. Carbon copy!" another group echoed.


Then came the dancing.


The children of the deceased have to dance around in a circle. They have to dance through the pain of losing a loved one. They have to pretend to be alright the night before. I led my sisters. We danced. I adjusted my wrapper occasionally, just to add a little flair. 


Then came the powder. 


For whatever reason, culture states that the women pour out talcum powder and throw it in your face. My family women giggled as they did. I think I was the clown in their circus. 


The dancing goes on for a while before the food arrives. Everybody eats with the looming thought of someone who will be buried in a few hours.


iii. 


In a few hours, my father's body arrived from the morgue. He looked peaceful. His face was drained of all colour, yet he looked peaceful. I looked at his head and I remembered the feel of his grey hair when I stroked it at the hospital. I knew then that I loved him. Just like everyone in the room, I realized that there were so many things I should have said and not said.


Soon, shovels began to slice through the dirt as a choir sang in the background. Whatever hymn it was, I liked it and I started to move my fingers. I breathed and tried to forget about some relatives who had been in an altercation just minutes before. They had maligned each other six feet from where their dead uncle lay. 


The whole thing reminded me of those films where two aunties fight over who had loved the deceased more or why the other had been so unfair to him. Only in my case, as it is in most Nigerian burials, my relatives were arguing over booze and jollof rice.  I knew that they were either very dumb or very very dumb.


The last thing about Nigerian burials? The rain does not listen to every prayer lodged against it. It rained as my father was laid down. It rained and I was wearing white.


 

About the author:

Eduek Moses is a writer, aspiring cat dad, and part-time contrarian. He is currently getting his B.A in Communication Arts. He has words in Fiction Niche Magazine and The Dusty Roads Anthology. He loves taking photos and listening to jazz and lo-fi. You can find him on Twitter @eduek_moses 



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