|I didn't go to this funeral.|
According to my Ghanaian colleagues, weekends are for funerals. You attend lots of funerals, here - for people you know or people you knew of from others - so that eventually you'll have a sizable gathering for your own funeral. Because in Ghana, funerals are big deals - much bigger than weddings. I mean, they're big enough to the point that some think they can be a bit excessive.
Perhaps you've seen on social media one or two videos from a Ghanaian funeral? You know, one of the pallbearers dancing with a coffin bouncing on their shoulders?
I find it almost impossible to explain the Ghanaian funeral I attended by comparing it to anything we have in the US...but I found myself comparing it a bit to Indian weddings. It had a lot of pomps and circumstances (like an Indian wedding) and it was long. And apparently, by Ghanaian scale, this funeral was a very small one.
But I'm ahead of myself.
The funeral was in the Central Region - about a five-/six-hour drive from Accra. My 60 Ghanaian colleagues and I sleepily piled into a VIP bus at 2am (!) on Saturday and started our journey. If you've ever driven down Ghanaian roads, you may recall that speeds are managed via ample speed bumps and potholes (every mile or so?). Sleeping on the bus was difficult.
A few towns before we reached the funeral, we stopped at a guesthouse to dress for the service. Ghanaian funerals are formal events - no jeans or sneakers! The standard colors are black and red (with a few exceptions for those in church groups with costumes - yes, costumes - and etc.). Women wear tailored outfits with a flared blouse paired with a mermaid skirt, while men wear smart kente shirts or elaborate "togas". Apparently, in the Ashanti region, funeral attire is so strict that one can be refused entrance if the outfit isn't up to code. Luckily for me, we weren't in Ashanti and I was allowed to wear simple black pants and a modest shirt.
When we arrived, we had to line up and start a procession to the funeral (women in the back, of course) and around the corpse of our late colleague before sitting down.
Okay, so this is when the culture shock for me started during the funeral. There much to unpack in my culture shock, so I will explain the uniqueness in my favorite format - a list:
- The (dressed) corpse was laid out in full view on a table in a clear tent. I was not expecting the body to be on display as fully as it was. In Western funerals, *if* the body is on display, it's only from the torso up. This body, however, was not covered at all - I saw the rigid legs leading to the stiff upper body of someone who has been moved into position after Rigor mortis set in. There was no way to deny death at this funeral, for his body was so clearly visible to all who attended at all vantage points.
- The corpse was a month old. In a country that is hot and so very near the equator, I was baffled to see the body in such a well-preserved state...and that they had taken so long to bury the body. My colleagues explained to me that burial customs in Ghana sometimes prohibit bodies from being buried for quite a long time, which means families and morgues will do what they can keep bodies on ice if there are delays.
Why would there be delays? One example I heard was that if a local royal died before your loved one, you can't bury them until the royal is. And, since funerals are such big deals in Ghana, funerary ceremonies for royals can last weeks/months/years! Which means you just have to wait to mourn your loss until the royals are buried. I'm not entirely sure why this funeral was a month late, but it was - and that was not abnormal to anyone but me.
- There were hundreds of people at this "small funeral". In the West, a large funeral may have 100 people or so; in Ghana, large funerals have more like a few thousand. I was in awe that so many people turned up at the funeral, but was even more surprised when I was told that it was a tiny funeral. The reason why thousands of people didn't show up was that my colleague died rather young and before his parents - in Ghana, burying a child requires a smaller, not-very-spectacular funeral.
- The service had lots of emotions expressed. I'm used to funerals being somber, sad events. Ghanaian funerals have (potentially professional?) wailers and sobbing/moaning family members, of course, but there was also a lot of singing and dancing. The church that ran the service brought the chorus. They banged tambourines, sang joyfully to songs about Jesus (I think? It was in Twi, but "Jesus" sounded the same...), and danced in a parade around the center of the funeral grounds - sometimes even around the body. At some point during the funeral, the corpse was moved discreetly into a coffin, which was then placed in the middle of the compound, and more dancing circled it. Some periods of the funeral had rowdy songs juxtaposed with people crying loudly. I didn't really know how to process the information during this service because I felt overwhelmed with emotions at the moment, but I think I was glad to have some levity in what normally is a dark event...even if the contrast was so stark.
- The service was quite long. In my world, funerals are for about two hours. Max. We ended up staying at this funeral for six hours before hopping back in the bus to return to Accra...and we had left early! Once again, funerals can last a long time, and apparently, I only got a taste of all that would be included in the ceremonies. To me, it was extremely long; understanding only a smattering of words - mostly being "Jesus" - probably made it feel even longer.
- We had to go through a lot of formalities. So much of the funeral included people moving around, shaking hands of everyone else attending the funeral. And much else of the funeral were different people making speeches (again, in Twi) in what appeared to have been normal standard operating procedures. I'm not sure most of what happened, but there seemed to have been some kind of formula to go through for the event. We did a lot of standing and sitting for songs and other parts that I didn't understand, as well.
There was one part of the ceremony that was in English: the eulogies. And it was heartbreaking to listen to several people read out their written eulogies in between sobs.
After the initial religious part of the ceremony and people moved around the coffin a few times, it was time for the pallbearers to lead the hundreds of attendees to the burial. We were in a rural community, so everyone piled onto the road and slowly walked to the cemetery off on the shoulder of the road, at the end of the village.
Did I mention that it was hot out in rural Ghana? It was probably 100F/37.8C outside and as the sun climbed the sky, all of my colleagues and I started to pour sweat (I won't lie...I was comforted to see that I wasn't the only one sweating). There was a point during the day where I wasn't sure my clothing would ever come off again from my sweaty body. I wasn't sure if I'd ever know what it felt like to be cold again, either. There was some cooling wind...but not much.
At some point after the burial, I realized I had an urgent need to urinate. A few of my lady colleagues helped me find a village toilet, which was harder than it sounds as Ghana is known in my sector as having low sanitation coverage. Anyway, somebody showed us to a roofless structure with walls that wrapped around like a spiral and told me to have at it. I walked cautiously through the spiral to find a stained floor and a small hole in the side of the wall that outputted into a divet near someone's home. This was the only toilet in the community apparently, so I took off my pants and squatted...and proceeded to urinate openly and indiscriminately. It was so hot out I couldn't tell where my urine was going, but I would be lying if I said I didn't get any of it on my person. Oh well.
The happenings continued.
Our organization wanted to donate some money to the bereaved family, which meant the formalities continued for us. All 60 of us were ushered into a family compound where we sat and waited for the bereaved family members to greet us. My understanding is that we first had the widow's family leaders come to greet us and asked us our intentions, to which someone on our team represented us and stated our intention to donate money. The widow's family left, satisfied. Afterward, we waited for a while until the bereaved blood family joined us and we went through the same formalities again. Each time a new group or family came to go through this process with us, there was handshaking. Everyone had to give each other handshakes. Which meant I shook a lot of people's hands that day. Many of them seemed quite pleased to have shaken the hand of a foreigner at the funeral - it appears I added some prestige to the funeral and showed that our colleague had had an international network.
Once the handshaking ended, we then had to do the process all over again, this time in public at the official ceremony where donations were publically announced. Again, someone had to state our intentions to give money to the family, and we had to shake hands. The difference with this version was that afterward our team had to dance around the altar that replaced the coffin before we were able to leave the funeral and head home.
We finally got back to Accra around 9pm - about 20 hours after our days started. But, of course, not without me peeing on myself one last time (this time at a gas station) while we headed back.
One last note: I found this article about how some of the funeral calls in Ghana can be quite comedic - enjoy!