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Apart from the November 18 gubernatorial election fever which has now engulfed Anambra State and tons of endorsements for the incumbent governor, Chief Willie Obiano, the regulation of burial rites seems to be the most topical issue in the gateway state to Igbo heartland. The sponsor of the proposed bill, Mr. Charles Ezeani, a People’s Democratic Party (PDP) member representing Anaocha 2 Constituency in Anambra State House of Assembly, said during a recent public hearing on the bill, which has passed a second reading, that the bill essentially seeks to “curtail the outrageous demands on the family of the deceased by traditions and customs, enforced by elders without any consideration for financial capacity” of family of the deceased.
The trend, Ezeani claims, has also “created room for unhealthy competition among families and friends, each trying by any means to outshine the other.” From available information on the bill, it wants “to encourage the celebration of people when they are alive.” According to reports, the bill also spells out “cost-cutting measures, revenue generation for the state, guidelines on duration, ways and manner burials should be organized.” Ezeani, who advocated for a distinction between “mourning” and a “fiesta” said that burial rites contributed 60 -70 percent of the socio-cultural activities in the state, where the wealthy showcased their economic might.
The bill restricts church burial to specified number of hours and states that burial ceremonies should not exceed one day. It also restricts mourning period to a week and exposition of preserved body. It bans wake keeping, some burial customs like stoppage of burial on a particular market day, ban on firing of local guns (egbendu) and ban of presentation of food to sympathizers during burials amongst others.
Some people from the state and some groups have made their reservations on the bill known to the members of the House and there is no point repeating them in this article. However, the bill still needs the inputs of other sons and daughters of Igboland that may not necessarily hail from Anambra State. I say this simply because it does not take time before anything that takes place in Anambra spreads to other parts of Igboland like a bush fire in the harmattan.
On the face value, the bill appears fine and good. But when critically viewed, the ugly sides of the bill will be seen. Without thorough inputs, the bill will create more problems for burial in Anambra State than it planned to solve. The aspect of the bill that makes it a means to enhance internally generated revenue through fines on defaulters of aspects of the bill should be expunged. Those already hailing the bill should take time to critically examine its provisions.
The bill, as presently conceived, has many contradictions. Some of its provisions if passed into law might infringe on freedom of choice of an individual on how he wishes to spend his money on burial of his relative, which is a personal choice, and therefore contrary to the provisions of Sections 17 and 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). A person should be allowed the freedom of how he likes to bury his relative without any encumbrance by the provisions of the burial rites bill.
Again, trying to regulate Igbo burial practices that derive from culture of the people as the bill intends to do is also an infringement on the rights of the people on how they should bury their dead. The bill will die a natural death if its provisions contradict Igbo cultural values, beliefs and customs. The bill should not assume that every citizen of Anambra State is a Christian.
There are Anambra people that practise indigenous traditional religion and other received religions. Before the advent of Christianity in Igboland, the Igbos had ways and manners of burying their dead. The burial of any dead person in traditional Igbo society, to which Anambra State is part of, depends more on status. The burial of an Ozo title holder will be grand more than that of an Ofeke, a person without Ozo title.
Similarly, the burial of a rich Igbo cannot be the same with the burial of a poor Igbo. One is buried according to his status. Expensive burial is not by compulsion. Burial in Igboland is taken as a social gathering and even a party if you like, where people eat and drink to their satisfaction. It is more or less a feast. That is why burials of titled Igbo elders are reserved for dry season when most social masquerades will be in attendance. In Igbo belief system, the dead are mourned as well as celebrated. The Igbo do not believe that death is the end of life. They see it as a transition to another life and therefore it should be celebrated, especially if the deceased died in a very old age.
They believe that death is a change of state, a transition to the realm of ancestors. They believe that there is a link between the living and the dead. And because of their belief in reincarnation, they see death as a necessary end that should not be dreaded because there is possibility of coming back to life again. Since burial in Igboland is a private affair and is embedded in cultural beliefs, the bill seeking to regulate it must be abreast of cultural peculiarities of the entire people of Anambra State.
We should stop the habit of demonizing everything Igbo because we have embraced western values, including Judeo-Christian ethics and theology. We should respect our culture, including the Igbo burial rites, which are by far more superior and prestigious than received ones. Even in Europe, people are buried differently. Even in churches, people are buried differently.
In all, the bill, though well intentioned, will not fundamentally address the high cost of burial in Anambra State cum Igboland. Cutting down on burial expenses should be addressed through moral persuasion than legislation. I say this because such burials have cultural implications. Burial is also a private affair. The church has tried it and I believe it also failed in its various attempts to regulate burial in Igboland. A big man’s burial will always be grand while a poor man’s burial may not be so. Comets announce only the birth of princes and not otherwise.
Since all fingers are not equal, which the Igbo in their wisdom acknowledge, people should bury their dead as their purse can carry without being forced to do so by law. The bill, if passed into law, will be hard to enforce. At best, it will remain a beautiful piece of legislation that cannot be enforced. And if a law cannot be enforced, of what use is its legislation?
There are other problems that need urgent legislation more than burial rites. We want transparency in governance, a functional local government system and bridging of the gap between the haves and the have-nots and social equality.