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Where Do We Bury You When You Die?

Where Do We Bury You When You Die?

 [ Masterweb Reports ] - A few years ago while we were young students in Atlanta, a young Nigerian student at Clark College went to work and a heavy box he was lifting with a forklift fell and broke the poor student’s neck. We ran around looking for money to send the body home after the Nigerian Embassy in Washington informed us it had no money budgeted for flying bodies home. We asked the family back home to bury Ejike in Atlanta, and the answer we received was: “No, send our son home.” That was a tall order, particularly coming from the order giver who had no kobo to contribute but who would perhaps be at Lagos Airport crying about “Nwa anyi jere Obodo Oyibo” (our child that went to the white man’s land). The round-trip fare to Nigeria by Pan American Airline then was dirt cheap ($425) so there was no problem. When time came to send the corpse home no one was willing to accompany Ejike because we all were illegal aliens and Immigration was hot on our heels. How time flies!
Nigerians are still very touchy about death, and giving loved ones befitting burials is a significant feature of the Nigerian cultural life one is not easily allowed to tamper with .What is more befitting for a dead man than washing him and sticking him in the soil to rest from his earthly worries? And why must talking about death and burial be removed from public discussions as a matter of urgency? Few friends had warned me to stay clear of discussing controversial Nigerian traditions after I wrote the piece “Wake Keeping or Wake Begging.” A Nigerian woman whose ideas I always seek when thinking on some of my topics, asks “Who forces you to attend wakes? Why do you write on such topics? Are you asked to donate money? Why are you becoming so unpopular that people are beginning to hate you?” Hate me for expressing innocuous thoughts on sensitive issues- innocuous in the sense that my thoughts are inoffensive to me, safe to the environment, harmless to others, and strictly personal?

If hatred is what I get for questioning my people’s oppressive tradition or status quo, I don’t want to be loved. And if omenala (traditional ways of doing things) will oppressively dictate how we live, love, sex, die, and bury our dead (by transporting a corpse thousands of miles across continents at exorbitant costs to the family), are we allowed to ask: “Does it mean that’s the way things ought to always be done? Does it? And why doesn’t it?” Assumimg arguendo it is found that you are entitled to how you want to be buried, it doesn’t preclude battling for “uche gi” (your mind) or struggling to manipulate your mindset and change the way you think about traditions. This essay speaks to that. We owe no apology.

How about making death a bit painful?

I am thinking about changing the way I behave at wakes. The gentlemanly way of spraying dollar bills has got to stop. I have tried pressing the dollar bills hard on the men’s sweaty foreheads or the women’s pancake (that hideous, gummy substance called makeup) which African women enjoy plastering their faces with. I would like to press the dollar bill hard on pancake faces that it sticks like dried-up pus and covers the dancers’ vision. The idea is to get dancers to trip and fall down, giving the impression they are helping children collect the IN GOD WE TRUST. Now, I have thought of coming up with heavy rolls of quarters which would allow me to stay on the dance floor a bit longer and which I shall throw with ferocious force at the celebrants’ cringing eyes, noses, mouths, lips, ears, necks, or teeth if they try to smile at Okafor Naira Sprayer or me during Sweet Mother number. A wicked friend of mine suggested I come up with bags of rocks to be thrown with the energy of a baseball player at the dancers begging for money. There would be pandemonium as the women run into bathrooms with rocks sticking out of their heavy make-up and the men dive under tables with their onyeagba pot bellies filled with osikapa and isi ewu mixed with a half gallon of foaming Heinekens.

Does death defy time and place ?

As I was planning on what moves to take to discourage carrying corpse home, I ran into a Nigerian woman at Riverdale Bank of America. She had been counting Dollar bills for over an hour. I recognized her as one of the dancers at Igbo wake-keeping social gatherings and that grabbed my inquisitiveness. As I carefully approached her so as not to create the impression I wanted to rob her, I sarcastically asked: “Madam, you need help counting all that money?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “My brother just died, and we had a wake for him two days ago.” Two days ago? In the very town I live? I didn’t go to her wake because I didn’t read the email or because the name of this woman and her bereaved family didn’t ring a bell. It could be that I hadn’t wanted to write more checks when some Nigerian MC begins to say: “Folks, this body got to go home .” I didn’t kill the man, and I hadn’t stopped the corpse from walking home across the Atlantic, did I? Anyway, running into a recently bereaved Naija lady counting money at a bank was a picture in comedy. It is comical in that the lady’s brother doesn’t know his sister would be using his death as excuse to prostitute and count her proceeds at a local bank.

I said: “I’m so sorry, Ma’am. Did your brother die in Atlanta, and when did he pass?’ Her response baffled me and led me to want to grab the money from her, put it back into her account , and then lecture her on the evil of her people’s wake-keeping habit of “ichughari akpati ozu” (chasing after the wooden coffin)? Why are we always (a) shedding crocodile tears; (b) bothering friends to organize wakes; (c) begging friends to bring food and beverages to a rented hall; (d) collecting money to spend on business back home or to build a doggone house under the pretext that we are honoring the dead and paying respect to family members who once lived and are no more; and (e) getting drunk to ease the pain or fear of facing our impending death? “Oh, no, he died in Nigeria a few years ago.” The dollar-counting woman finally said in front of a heap of green Dollar bills that were unkempt, ragged, scruffy, bedraggled, disheveled, or simply rumpled.

What Do I Care When I’m gone?

I once had a funny dream in which I was attending a wake party somewhere at Atlanta. Something terrifying happened. As I was carrying two hefty plates of food to a table in the midst of Osadebe and Sweet Mother pieces of music and people were milling around the dance floor ready to throw down, the man whose life and death we were celebrating suddenly appeared in the hall and snatched the microphone from the befuddled MC. He gave a little speech and disappeared as miraculously as he had entered:

He said: Igbo Kwenu, Rienu, Nuonu, Kwezuenu! I’m just coming from the grave. Did I ask you people to place me in this box? Wha t do I care how you dispose of my remains when I die? Did you say some kind words to me while I walked among you? Did you smile, pat me on the back, slip a loving arm around my neck, or put a lone Dollar into my palm to buy a bottle of Crystal Sparkling Water? How come now you are going bananas, looking for a place to get drunk and talk your trash? Weren’t you gossiping when my wife and I were fighting and going through a bitter divorce? What’s this jankara all about?” And piom! The man disappeared. The MC announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, you heard what was being said. Now, DJ, give us a hot number.”

New Breeds of Nigerians

I was going home from a function in which this Anambra man gave his daughter away in a traditional wedding when an Igbo man I was riding with on a stony, winding road in the early hours of dawn, cleared his throat and shocked me. This is the first time a Nigerian had shocked me after clearing a deep throat he uses to swallow large quantities of foo-foo, goat pepper soups, and cases of Heinekens. His words came out like that of a dead man in enchanted house. “I have told my wife in Atlanta and mother in Nigeria: ‘Bury me right here in America when I die.’”

This right -thinking Igbo man then enunciated reasons for his desire to be buried in Atlanta. His wife wouldn’t have to fork over $10,000 to $15,000 on caskets and shipping his body home. His wife would spend that money on raising his children the best she could rather than waste it on archaic customs. His wife could cremate him and spread the ashes in his compound at home, or she could just dump the corpse in the ground. The Yorubas, he said, do not subscribe to Igbo ideas and are burying their dead wherever they are. Do the dead know where they are? The Igbo man concluded his discourse with a question: “Why must my wife be in debt after I am gone?”

Are Nigerians thinking any better than their thick-headed ancestors? When asked where she would like to e buried, a Nigerian Igbo woman said: “Bury me in America because the cemetery has beautiful lawns, and I would like to sleep there.” Her children would occasionally come to clean her grave on Mother’s Day and place some beautiful flowers there.

Our ancestors were egocentric, defined as being selfish, self-centered, insensitive, inconsiderate, egotistic, egoistic, or simply careless of other people’s feelings. They were self-centered simpletons. A man died in a Nigerian town, leaving behind a will that specifically stipulated that he be buried in style in a grave along with his most precious and endearing possession- his Citroën car. At the man’s death, his relatives refused to dig the large grave despite the weeping and prodding of the deceased’s widow. “ How could he be so selfish?” They asked. Finally, there was a compromise with the widow who agreed to bury her late husband in a wooden box and let the widow keep the Citroën. It took the persuasion of the whole town to get the widow to agree to hire a driver to chauffeur her around town.

Now Comes my Incredible Homeboy

I called up this man from my village and suggested his wife would bury him In New York’s Flower Gardens if he should predecease her. He shot back like a sawed-off gun: “Mba, obu ihe aru ini madu na mba” (No, it is a shameful thing to bury a man outside his home). Why? Villagers would not believe the person is dead until they see the corpse. Relatives would want to know what killed their brother or husband. People would want to participate in and witness the elaborate celebration including the number of cows led in the funeral processions, the size of food and alcohol to be eaten and drunk; the number of masquerade groups invited and baskets of Naira spread; and how closure was brought to the dead person’s life. Older married men with some money would want the opportunity to check out the dead man’s widow to see if she could be a welcome addition to their collection of girlfriends.

The most notable reason for the elaborate celebration is to pay the last respect to the departed so people would go home saying: “You know. Okonkwo spent billions of Naira to give his father the best funeral the people in this town have ever seen in years.” According to my homeboy, a man must be buried in his compound where he has inheritance. And I get irritated when my homeboy goes into details about his late father’s funeral when relatives the old man had put into business brought not one or two, but eleven large cows to be slaughtered. To my homeboy, a funeral is not complete unless it has a show-show, beatiem -m’ele (unbeatable) feature.

Then, my homeboy goes into the underworld of voodoo and magic, and I wish he had just gone away so I could doze off. A man my homeboy knew had died and was buried outside his village. Because omenala wasn’t followed, the dead man’s restless spirit caused so much destruction and turmoil relatives had to hurriedly exhume the body and re-bury him in front of his house. His spirit finally rested in peace. Will someone please tell my homeboy to go somewhere else (gaa ebe ozo), and tell that old wives’ tale to my grandkids at halloween. I remember growing up with the family of Mr. Oji from Arochukwu who owned a Volkswagen and a few transport lorries, When Mr. Oji died, the children tore up the living room of his expensive home and buried him in the middle. That way, Mr. Oji would always rule over his financial empire. As the Biafran War was brewing, the wife and children of Mr. Oji abandoned the house with Mr. Oji’s grave in northern Nigeria and ran to Arochukwu.

Where you want to be buried is your doggone business. Be sure you are making things better not worse for the people you are leaving behind, and you aren’t being crazy as the Egyptian Pharaoh who asked to be buried with his servants, queens, and household goods and jewels in preparation for rulership in the underworld. I’ve just gotten a clever idea. When folks back home badger me with demands that I send them some American Dollars through the Western Union for uniforms to be worn at village funerals of Chiefs So-an-So, I am going to be asking the callers: “Are you going as Jesus to raise the dead or are you going just to eat bitter leaf soups and drink some palm wine?” Then I embarrass the callers by giving them nicknames of Mr. or Mrs. Oke Akpiri (Tremendous Appetite). The callers are getting fewer and fewer. Nawa. I sure got those beggars. Hahaha. Ah.

Dr. James C. Agazie ( ) reports.

*Photo Above – A grave in a cemetery