The easier part for preparation towards interning the Igbo dead, is that which is done outside of the homeland (in the case of the deceased who lived outside the homeland), viz like those towards the service of songs, etc.
When it comes to the homeland, preparations is a different kettle of fish hence the saying, “Afufu a na tali onye nwulu awun, ka nke a na talu onye di ndu”, which literally means that “the suffering on behalf of the dead is even more than that done on behalf of the living”, where suffering translates loosely to all the “running around” associated with burials and funerals in Igbo land.
I have mentioned on several occasions, the importance of being part of Igbo village and town meetings, both in the homeland and out of it for the traveller Igbo aka “Nwa Bialu Ije”, because how the deceased gets a befitting burial depends on how involved such a one is in village activities, within or without the homeland. The tale is told of a man whose response to requests for funds at village and town meetings was ” Ga a n’iru” (Go on ahead) while he was alive, such that when he died and a meeting was called to plan his burial, it was said that every one to which the question was put to in order to raise money, responded likewise. A dismayed chairman of the planning committee then asked the gathering if they’d rather he went to rob a bank to raise the money to bury the man, and of course you can guess the response!
Funerals are important for the Igbo, and I won’t apologize for the overemphasis. It is believed that a man who accords his father a proper and befitting funeral, has spoken up for his father here on earth, and his father/mother would replicate the same gesture in the hereafter on his behalf. I have come upon a hitch, hence I will crave your indulgence to allow me to relate all this as relating to a man burying his late father. Therefore in many Igbo towns and villages, before a man is buried much is done to ensure that he made financial peace with all the groups in his immediate town and village, and with those outside of it if he sojourned outside the homeland before his people can partake in his final sending home, this does not mean that the very poor cannot be spoken for, rather there works speak for them in terms of physical presence and involvement. If peradventure the deceased is found to be wanting in some areas, his bereaved are made to pay the sanction fees before proceeding. Some others who elect to ignore all these, may go ahead to still bury their dead, but no member of the extended family, or the village or town will pay him their last respect as there will be no “flags” hoisted on behalf of the different levels of communal strata/groups to signify that such a burial can be attended by the people of the town and village without consequence.
Besides these town unions, there are groups whose roles are important for a burial to take place, chief of these are the “Umu Nna”, i.e. the deceased’s male kindred. These in conjunction with the bereaved make plans as well as coordinate the burial and funeral of “their” brother, with the assistance of their wives, known as “Umu Nwanyi Ndi Ogbom”. These groups are primarily in charge of preparations before and during the burials and funerals proper, and the bereaved must work through them to reach the village and town groups. They do have the ability to make or mar such an event, hence the need to ensure one is in their good book by engaging constructively with them routinely while alive.
I will go on to describe the other groups with the role they play at burials, along with their responsibilities/obligations and expectations/rights. Usually, for the dead that isn’t an observer of the traditional religion, the burial and interment is organized and conducted by his mission or church. Afterwards, the Umu Nna take charge ensuring that the above set (usually Church members who saw to the interment of their own) are tended to, in terms of food and drinks at the designated canopy allocated to them, before the leader of the delegation, most likely a pastor may come to “Kpu e Akwa”, (literally covering the deceased with a piece of clothing) a kind of paying of last respects to the dead, which involves presenting before the first son of the deceased (at “The Condolence Table” prepared to recieve guests, flanked by the head of the family who will receive various groups and express the family’s appreciation to those who had come to console them, a scribe/detailer, and another member of the family as witness with the large body of the Umu Nna sitting behind for suppprt) with a piece of cloth, crates of beer, malt and soft drinks, as well as an envelope containing some money.
The pastor may make his presentation on behalf of his congregation (and himself, as his members could also make individual presentations) before others, or while others are doing theirs. Canopies are usually made available to accommodate groups such as the Umu Nna (usually behind the condolence table as already stated, where they are also offered their refreshments as they superintend over affairs of the day) and Umu Nwayi (not so far away from the centre of activity) as listed above. Other groups include the Nna Ochie of the deceased (the people from where the deceased’s mother came from), the Nna Ochie of the deceased’s son (the people of the place of the wife of the deceased, and mother of the first son), the various Ògbo (Age Grade of the deceased and his sons), the Ogò (the in-laws of the deceased) amongst others and that is without excluding a big canopy to cater for the general public who aren’t covered in any of the above listed, even unlisted groups.
A day before the Funeral, the Umu Nna, with the Umu Nwanyi Ogbom will come to the compound of the deceased to clean and clear it of any dirt, as well as make space amongst their kindred for the setting of canopies, planting banners and flags, digging the grave amongst many other activities that will ensure a hitch free funeral process.
The Umu Nwanyi Ndi Ogbom (women folk of the kindred) also attends on the day earmarked for the funeral, are allocated a big canopy, make presentations to the family of the deceased with dance and songs, before or after they are provided their due in food and drinks. They would come a day after the funeral as well, this time with their counterparts in the village and town, to come and console the widow, help her clean her house and clear the space for funeral proceedings to continue, before returning later in the evening for yet another hosting of their number by the bereaved. The men of the village and town would come again, a day after funeral proceedings to commiserate with the bereaved family and also bring the whole funeral process which may last between two days to a week to an end.
The night before the burial and funeral usually belongs to the Ògbo, the members of the Age Grade of the deceased and those of his sons if he has any. They stay the night singing and extolling the virtues of the deceased, renewing their strength with provisions allotted them by the bereaved member of their age grade in the case of sons of the deceased, or by the family of the deceased in the case of the members of the age grade of the deceased.
On the day of the funeral proper, they are also given their space and canopy, usually in the home of a top member of the age grade or Ògbo, from where they will later emerge to make their presentation, sometimes even in songs and dance to the family of the deceased.
The needs of the various groups are catered for differently depending on their importance, though in actual fact, none of the groups should be ignored as doing so can only cause embarrassment to the bereaved family. Of all the groups to be represented at a funeral, the Nna’ochie of the deceased are the ones for which utmost care must be taken in tending. Usually, regardless of the age of the deceased, they are compelled to inquire as to how and why their daughter’s son died at the time he did, and if they aren’t pacified in time, they tend to go about setting the funeral location in disarray. This is why, once they approach “the condolence table”, the Umu Nna hastily present them a Cock, a crate of Beer and ₦500. The Nna’ochie of the deceased may then proceed to present their offering of a piece of cloth, usually six yards, crates of Beer, Malt and Soft drinks and some money in an envelope before they can proceed to the canopy allocated to them. Once seated, they are again offered a Ram of stature, “Kola” and food and drinks.
I will like to quickly touch on Kola before I continue. In Igboland, as well as with other cultures in Nigeria and Africa, no traditional ceremony can be held without the breaking of Kola, and at it’s breaking the health of the one offering/host and the once been offered/guest is prayed for. Beyond the Kolanut plant itself, some garden eggs and peanut butter is presented as part of the “Kola”, and a bowl for the washing of hands of all those present. It is after the Kola is consumed, that food and drinks can then be served.
Apart from the Nna’ochie, of note in the proceedings of the Igbo funeral is the arrival and presentation by the Ogo. The first of the sons-in-law is expected to present a Ram to the people of his Father-in-law, while the others are to present goats. The daughters-in-law aren’t compelled to present a Goat or Ram, but like the other in-laws they have to present a piece of cloth, drinks, and an envelope containing some naira notes to their in-laws as they come with representatives of their family and friends, and if they can afford it, with music and dance. Now, any of the in-laws to the deceased may decide to do more than stipulated should they wish before they are ushered to their canopies for refreshments and entertainment. The principle behind this culture is called Omagol’owelu, literally meaning that the in-laws were intimated of this at the time they married into the family, and in agreeing to the terms and conditions, are now compelled to fulfill them at the time of the funeral of their Father-in-law to the latter.
It must be noted, that any one who presents a cow to the people of the deceased must be gifted with a goat in return. The cow may not necessarily be presented physically, but a lump sum of the equivalent amount in the Nigerian currency, the Naira can be presented with a rope, which should draw the attention of the Umu Nna to come and ensure that the amount presented will buy a cow, before the requisite goat is released to the one who had made such a gesture, amongst other things presented.
There is so much that is about the Igbo funerals that even this blog cannot contain, especially the philosophy behind many of the activities witnessed during a funeral. Even the groups I listed aren’t even near enough of the other groups, including those peculiar to some particular cultures and places in Igbo land, like the Umu Ada for instance. What I have highlighted thus far is what I have witnessed, and experienced and not exactly a total picture of the Igbo and how they go about their Funerals, hence I will be interested to have your experiences even if you are not Igbo. For now, I think this will be a right place to stop for now.