An essay by Chimamanda Adichie has spurred conversations about burials among the Igbo people.
In a damning piece, the author had faulted the catholic church’s handling of her parents’ burials. This was after she famously criticised the church’s activities as being “too much about money, fundraising, and thanksgiving”.
The criticism, which immediately received massive media coverage, ushered in multiple accounts from citizens alleging the extortion of the families of the dead by both the church and traditional authorities in the southeast.
Funeral rites among Igbos for the men can differ from those of women. Whether or not the woman had a child can be a factor. Before, there were conditions under which women can be taken back to their father’s home for burial.
Fees that have to be paid can be enforced by the clan members, ancestral daughters, the youth, and the church. These traditions and practices have continued to change over time but villages and households can be conservative.
Churches have been accused of conditioning burials on the redemption of recorded debts owed to Christian societies by the family of the deceased without empathy. Clans members can demand a cow for merriment.
A BBC Igbo panel session witnessed the presence of church leaders and an Igbo monarch to discuss the matter.
Conflicting burial rites & demands as Christianity, traditionalism clash
In Chimamanda’s case, she had alleged that her family went through difficulties negotiating dates for the funerals.
Martha Dunkwu, the monarch of Okpanam in Delta state, argued that a clash between tradition and the virtues of Christianity often contributed to the disagreements that get in the way of hitch-free funeral services among Igbos.
“From time in our village, burials for childless women differ from those with children. Funeral for women without male children also differs. In that, she is taken from her husband back to her father’s house for burial,” she said.
“Those with chieftaincy titles have rites too. Today, things have changed in that traditionalists do one thing while the church does another, bringing confusion. Some decide they won’t follow tradition, only to face trouble later on.
“Before, we don’t put corpses in the mortuary but bury immediately and follow up with rites. You can’t bury your late parents without meeting the (monetary) requirements. Some don’t finish their payments which isn’t good.
“The dead have to be buried. We can’t stop the billings totally but we can reduce it, so it doesn’t remain a burden.”
Doggedly enforcing debt payment after member’s death terrible, says bishop
Emmanuel Chukwuma, the archbishop of the Anglican church in Enugu, condemned the practice of conditioning the conduct of funerals on the compulsory payment of certain dues owed to the Church by the deceased member.
“Not all dioceses do these things. Catholics are fond of it. I neither pull out the debt book nor refuse to conduct the funeral over money. I’ve seen where these things happened and went to fight for the grieving family,” he said.
“It is terrible; those who do it should repent. We discuss these things at meetings. We asked the church leaders to caution the reverend fathers. Don’t go about the deceased’s debt like you won’t host the funeral because of it.
“Things are changing. Nowadays, if you go about it with force, the youth can pull out guns, take the corpse away for burial without the church, and hire pop stars to take care of entertainment while you’re left behind.”
Chukwuma said church laws can be activated to forbid the forcible collection of the dead’s debt from their family.
“We don’t exactly overburden the grieving families with bills but let them do as they can afford. There are some diocese that give a timeline from the date of death after which they will refuse to conduct the funeral,” he added.
“A lot of Igbo people waste resources in funerals. You don’t spend your last penny burying the dead. Some don’t celebrate their parents in life but, in death, they renovate, buy expensive coffins, and hire pallbearers.
“They end up overburdening themselves. We tell them we don’t need it but traditionalists complicate things.
“Before, if a man dies, the wife performs weird rites like sitting on the ground. In cases where people abide by both tradition and Christianity, it becomes tough. You do church, only to later go back into the bondage of shamanism.”
“You can’t see the debt book… it’s their word or nothing”
Kosi Udechukwu, an entrepreneur, said the cases of extortion extend to citizens thought to be debt-free and rich.
“The church system has its faults. People can be devout church members only for the church to pull out a book of debt after they die. The dead can’t defend themselves or argue as to whether or not they did owe levies,” she said.
“And they don’t let the family see the books; you have to take their word for it. Most of the time, the church won’t shift its ground to ensure the funeral proceeds if you don’t pay up. It happens mostly with low-income earners.
“They ask the bereaved family who barely have enough for burial to pay a debt of N50,000 or N100,000. When my husband’s mum died, it happened to her, even when she was always up to date with levies and often paid mine.”
Kosi said extortion was common among both traditionalists and the church, leaving many impoverished thereafter.
“It ruins things for all parties involved. Clan members should discuss these things to ensure burials go smoothly. If a first daughter dies, they can mandate the family to buy a cow, something they couldn’t afford prior,” she added.
“They put these people in a difficult situation where they run around borrowing money. After the funeral, they are impoverished; left in pain and regret. Some sell their lands and properties to save face and conduct funerals.”
Change starts with community members, not clergymen, says priest
John Oluomomachi, a catholic priest based in Imo, admitted that such cases had been reported while also condemning it.
On the solution, he charged community members to start activism on it, spread the word, and watch the trend end.
“Not all Catholic churches do it. Doggedly billing the deceased’s family is generally frowned at. People should abide by situation ethics. There are other ways of raising funds for the church, not by levying the dead,” the priest said.
“The problem isn’t exactly from the priests but from members themselves heading societies within the church. The society of fathers, mothers, or youth may insist levies have to be redeemed; even go as far as opposing the priest.
“It could be the villagers. What we can do is spread the word condemning the practice of billing the dead. With time, it will become public knowledge. If positive activism starts from members, there is nothing the priest can do.”
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