African viewpoint: Ghanaians fight over the dead

Men fill sand into a grave in Ghana (archive shot)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene laments the hijacking of funerals by extended families.

A friend of mine has had a traumatic experience and this has brought the subject of death forcibly to the fore for me.

When a Ghanaian dies, the body belongs to the family - that is the legal position.

The definition of family, in this case, does not include a spouse or children.

So, do not go looking in the dictionary, where a family is defined as "a group of people who are related to each other, especially a mother, a father and children".

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Custom demands that children bury their parent - in other words, they must pay the bills for the funeral but they have no authority over the body”

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In matters of death in Ghana, a family refers to the extended family into which you are born - no matter how long ago and it does not include the family you have created.

So, you could be married for 50 years and the two of you might discuss what arrangements you want for your funerals when the time comes.

You might even write down these wishes but, unfortunately, when your wife dies, you will discover that 50 years of marriage counts for nothing.

Once your wife becomes a corpse, you have no say in where or even when she will be buried. If her family decides, for example, to take her body to the village she had never sat foot in, you will be able to do very little about it.

Wrath of in-laws

And if you think you are a beloved child and your parents have told you how they want their funerals conducted, you will discover that your word counts for nothing - unless, of course, you can find some people to intercede on your behalf and you can "buy" the funeral from the family.

The process of "buying" the rights to the funeral includes giving drinks and the paying of various fines for imaginary wrongdoings over your lifetime.

Custom demands that children bury their parent - in other words, they must pay the bills for the funeral but they have no authority over the body.

Drummers at a funeral service in Ghana (June 2010) Funerals in Ghana are elaborate affairs

If your spouse dies and you happen to be not very popular with your in-laws, then better get resigned to the fact that while you mourn the loss of your partner, you will be accused of having killed him or her.

I have seen it and it is not a pleasant experience.

My friend's husband died. Their children wanted their father buried after three weeks, but his family wanted his body kept for four months to enable relatives scattered around the four corners of the globe to attend the funeral.

We coaxed, we begged, we paid fines for all the years the children had not been to the village, but all to no avail - the body belongs to the family and they took it away.

This is an everyday occurrence in Ghana and if you think you can avoid it, let me tell you the story of a former chief justice who left strict instructions about what should happen when he dies.

He wanted to be buried within two weeks of his death and he did not want a state funeral.

Three weeks after he died, his family came to formally announce his death to the president and then added most helpfully that they had prayed and set aside the man's wishes and the president should feel free to accord a state funeral.

The man got a state funeral some six weeks after his death.

If that can happen to a chief justice, it is obvious there is no point in me leaving any instructions, but just in case anybody cares, I want to be cremated within a week.

Not that I plan on going any time soon.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Good job Liz. I recently joined my husband in Ghana and was told about this rule. For religious reasons my husband who is Ghanian do not wish to have his family bury him but i understand that his wishes may not be granted. I have therefore decided not to attend it or to finance it. Our children will probably do the same, without any money the family may see sense and mind their own business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A lot has happened to funerals in Ghana that leaves much to be desired. They've become for many fund raising occasions to make profits from investment in the funeral, hence bodies are kept in morgues for months while the seed money is raised. This is the sad spectacle, not the family interference that Elizabeth is complaining of unless she wants to redefine a family in the Ghanaian cutlture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Elizabeth, people should not see that in a negative way only. It has a lot of positive attachments especially at uniting families. People will have to ensure good relations with their extended relatives to have influence over the burial of their loved ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Maybe we should vote Elizabeth in as President of Ghana so that she can help/force us to bury our dead within one month max. I am even considering resigning as the President of my organisation because everyone has deserted due to my refusal to make funeral contributions the focus of the meeting. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Interesting piece but certainly not universal in Ghana . The tradition and practise in northen Ghana is different.There the dead will be intered within a couple of hours of death . And certainly no cost involved

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I am glad madam Elizabeth has taken up this topic. I feel some families only try to abuse the tradition which demands that the dead body belongs to the family. In northern Ghana, this tradition ensures that the spouse and children of the dead person do not have to bear the cost of burial and funeral ceremonies alone. This is a form of 'insurance', especially for the poor.


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