Tears and smiles at a funeral
By Calum Drysdale
This weekend was the funeral of a former employee of The Chronicle Newspaper, Linda Adu Tetteh, also known as Ama Duaa. She tragically passed away aged 46 as a result of a sudden illness.
While I had never met this woman, she was highly regarded by the other employees, and when I was offered the chance to come to her funeral, I leapt at the opportunity.
When I asked whether it would be strange for me to attend, I was told that funerals have a great cultural importance in Ghana, and that attendance by anyone that was affiliated to Linda was important. Therefore, even though I had never personally made her acquaintance, it was not improper for me to attend, because we were linked through our place of employment.
The day of the funeral, the people who would be attending gathered at the office at 6 o’clock in the morning. This was easier for some than for others. I, for instance, live quite close to the office, while others live much further away and must commute long distances every day. The fact that they were willing to do this, on a Saturday, a day normally reserved for rest and seeing one’s family, impressed on me the respect that Linda was held in, and the importance of attending funerals in Ghanaian culture.
A minibus had been hired to take us to the funeral, which was going to be held in Asene, a town in the Eastern Region. Everyone piled into the bus, and as I had got in first, I went to the back to fill up the seats efficiently. However, everyone told me to move to the front as I had never seen the Ghanaian countryside before, and wanted me to be able to see out of the front windscreen to get the best experience.
The journey took several hours. Progress varied greatly, as the road quality was wildly different, depending on where we were. For example, the road to Kumasi was fairly well maintained, but the moment we turned off it, the number of potholes increased enormously. The surface got worse and worse until we reached a town that had no tarmac at all, whose main road was just a rutted orange strip of mud and gravel. Thankfully, once we left the town, we soon found better roads and picked up speed again.
We arrived in Asene at around 9 o’clock. The cemetery of the town was already packed when we got out of the minibus and stretched our legs after what felt like a very long drive. Some members of our party took this opportunity to put on traditional wraps, which looked very beautiful.
The cemetery was full because more than one funeral was occurring at the same time. In fact, I would say that, at least, five people were being buried that day. The bodies were all laid out in state in a long room that had been very ornately decorated with fabric and lace.
I had never seen a dead body before today, and so didn’t know what to expect, but rather than any sense of horror or disgust I was filled with a sense of peace. This was a very positive way of dealing with death I thought. The English do not typically leave bodies in state, nor do they have open caskets at funerals. While this is intended to protect children from distress and to prevent ogling of the body, it builds death up into a far greater affair than I believe it should be. The Irish, on the other hand, do have a tradition of leaving bodies out and inviting the whole family together for a large funeral party. While I had previously considered this a strange practice, my experience has greatly affected me, and I now think that I would, myself, like to be buried in a similar fashion.
Once we had viewed the body, we paid our respects to Linda’s family. It was here that I learnt about the practise of the family organising the funeral, rather than the husband or partner of the deceased. I think this is interesting, as it suggests that even after decades of marriage, the ties of blood that tie a person to the family that they grew up in are stronger than the links formed in a relationship. I was again forced to compare this practice with the British attitude. Marriage for British people is when they finally break away from their parents to start their own family. There is discontinuity between the parents and the newly-married children. The spouse becomes the closest relative and next of kin. It is the spouse who would, in the case of death, organise the funeral. By contrast, here in Ghana, the ties of blood are so strong that that not even marriage can break them.
Once the service was completed, a loud affair full of singing and dancing, the bodies were loaded into cars and driven to the burial ground. We all got into our minibus and drove after the van carrying Linda.
It was here that the ceremony became more intimate. Once the coffin was lowered into a pre-dug hole, a priest, and those nearest and closest to Linda, gathered round to say any final farewells. It was a moving event, and many people found emotions getting the better of them, with tears and shouts ringing out over the final prayer for the dead.
Then it was over. The mourners departed, while the wet orange earth was piled back into the hole.
We then reassembled at the family house where food and drink were served to any and all that had come. I pitied the family, who, having just buried their daughter, must play host to all these people, but they showed no signs of grief other than lowered heads and earnest expressions. Once we had eaten, we thanked the family, expressed out final condolences and departed back towards Accra.
The return journey was only dissimilar to the outward trip, due to a brief stop to visit the largest tree in West Africa. Known by various names, this tree was only approximately hundred meters from the roadside, but had it not been for a faded sign announcing its presence, we would have driven by, none the wiser. The bus arrived back at the office soon after 6 o’clock, and everyone, sleepily but friendlily, wished each other well and headed home. It had been such a full day that I wouldn’t be surprised if many head home to bed.
I walked home slowly, thinking about what I had seen and how it differed from my own experience. Before that day, a funeral, for me, meant a brief trip to a church, with about twenty people, followed by a journey to a funeral home where the coffin disappeared behind a curtain, and then back to a house for tea and sandwiches. But wouldn’t it be better to be sent off by all those people that had meant something to you during your life, each of drinking and eating in your memory?