Monday, January 14, 2013
A Dying Art
Last week I heard of a birth and a death on the same day. Both events very close to me. The door to the place beyond seems to be a revolving one.
Here in Ghana much of people’s lives is spent doing the rounds of births, deaths and marriages. (The extended family can run into hundreds of people!) It is a phenomenal industry and involves the collection of funding from all family members to support it. I suppose, in emergent countries, there is a greater likelihood of old traditions sitting alongside modern life without conflict. Anyway, it is possible to go to one of the events mentioned above, every weekend. It is THE social activity and it brings food and drink to everyone and constantly cements tribal as well as family loyalties.
The death part of the equation is steeped in protocols. About 80 % of Ghanaians are Christian and the death alluded to above, was of a Christian woman in her eighties. Normally she would be made a wedding dress for laying out in public view in the church as she is being married to God. Her hands must be covered in gloves, her hair washed the day before, her feet covered by ankle socks and her face made up to look as she might have done earlier in her life. None of this is executed by an embalmer (as in Six Feet Under) but by a female member of the family, perhaps the eldest daughter.
A body may be kept in the morgue for up to a year before burial as members of a family’s diaspora are contacted and make plans to return home from the UK or the US or wherever else. It is the group of family elders (always driven unseen by the women) who ensure that protocols are met. It is very inflexible. There is a ten page guidance document which covers every conceivable element from food to flowers, from seniorities to attendant roles and functions. Only certain accessories are allowed in the coffin. Even if the deceased is famous for some symbolic piece of clothing, it will not be permitted to be with the body as it lies in local state. While the young want to spread ashes poetically where an individual made her mark on life and land, the elders may insist that the urn is buried. The elders determine everything. If my wife, for example, asks me to follow certain steps (no service, a humanist end, cremation, certain songs and no hymns) the chances of her wishes being carried out are negligible. I cannot overrule the female seniors. Funerals are for the living and the living are very adamant about what is permitted.
In Azimuth, a fanatical religious sect cut up their enemies into tiny pieces and spread them wide and far because they believed this would prevent the spirit from ascending to the place beyond. It also made the sect’s enemies very frightened of it! (www.azimuthtrilogy.com). Thus it is in Ghana, at least in my limited experience.
I suppose death preoccupies me as one of the great mysteries of existence. I’m a believer in the atoms untangling and spreading across the cosmos at death, some sticking around to be part of the constitution of a new life (the revolving door again.) My last novella The Sense of Being Sinbad is a sort of meditation on what is actually possible, leading up to one’s death. It is free for you to download. Tell me what you think about it at: www.chronometerpublications.me