Sweating under the weight of the coffin, red rags tied round their foreheads, the pall-bearers dip and weave through the crowd of mourners as the winged coffin soars above them, its brightly painted feathers forming a halo around the shining eyes and sharp beak. On a recent Saturday, Ghana’s funeral day, 67-year-old Nana Kobina Okai was buried in a multi-coloured, hand-carved, eagle-shaped coffin signifying his high social standing as the chief’s brother. Mr Okai left behind three wives, a dozen children and 14 grandchildren.
The day began with mourners gathering in their funeral attire of black, red and white. Professional mourners led the wailing; a band played. The procession through the dusty streets of Nyanyano, near the capital, Accra, lasted hours, stopping periodically for a libation of schnapps to be splashed over the coffin. After the body was lowered into the ground, the coffin was smashed up with rocks to deter grave-robbers. Then the eating, drinking and dancing began.
In Ghana the funereal send-off is as important as the life itself. But the costs, borne by extended families, can be punitive. Some 45% live on less than $1 a day, 79% on less than $2. Yet funerals tend to cost between $2,000 and $3,500. “Money measures the quality of the funeral and the family,” says Sjaak van der Geest, an anthropologist. The more cash spent, the higher the reputation of the deceased and the family. Mr Okai died in hospital, then spent almost three months in the morgue, at a cost of $521: the longer your body is in the fridge, the more prestigious. The Ga king, recently buried in Accra, was on ice for 18 months; the Dagbon king, in northern Ghana, for a record four years.
Mr Okai’s house was repainted for the wake. His coffin cost $319, two-thirds of the average Ghanaian’s annual income. Posters announcing the funeral were printed and distributed around town, beer and soft drinks bought, food prepared, the band hired, T-shirts bearing Mr Okai’s picture printed, transport for mourners arranged, diesel generators rented and cameramen brought in to record the day. A funeral arranger, Joseph Akrashie Annan, reckons that $2,470 was spent sending Mr Okai to his grave.
In the 1980s Ghana’s then military ruler, Jerry Rawlings, set up a commission to look at the exorbitant costs of funerals amid fears they were retarding the country’s economic growth. “Every year funerals grow in size, pomp and pageantry,” says Edward Kutsoati, a Ghanaian economist at Tufts University in the United States. “They are becoming centre-stage in the life of Ghanaians. This is not an efficient allocation of resources.”