It will be rather unfair to write about the Igbo dead and how they are buried, and not talk about what happens with and to the bereaved before, during and after the burial of their loved one. Since I have focused on the dead male head of family all this while, it is trite that I waltz into the situation with the widow. Lisa Vaught, commented on the fourth instalment of this topic, as thus – “Very interesting. Every culture has it’s funeral traditions. Humans need them I think to help in the grieving process, and to move forward. How elaborate or simple depends on the people.” There’s no gainsaying the fact that Igbo funerals are elaborate, what I can not see however, is how it helps in the grieving process, especially for the widow, even though I do agree that it does for almost every other person involved.
A few Igbo societies have shed some traditions that makes the mourning period a nightmare for the widow, while a lot more others have continued to hold on strongly to them. It is expected for the bereaved to mourn the passing of their loved ones, but none of them receive the same scrutiny and supervision as the widow. The rules guiding the mourning or grieving process appears to exist mainly for widows, while others can mourn at their own discretion and time. Even in the case of a widower, there tends to be more flexibility in what is required of them than with the widow.
In many Igbo cultures some restriction of movement is placed on the widow, including not going past the yard or gate of her late husband’s house for upwards of two weeks after the burial. In this period, she isn’t expected to eat anything cooked in that house especially once gunshots/canons have been fired to announce the beginning of burial and funeral rites for the deceased, which is usually on the eve before the burial. All that the widow eats must come from outside of the house, either from relatives or friends, and mustn’t come from the front gate of the house. This status quo will be maintained for twelve days, the equivalent of three Igbo market weeks. After a month however, she can move outside of the gates, but must be seen to wear only white or black clothes for six months (or a year) after the funeral. I forgot to include that the woman is expected to shave her hair,
like the children of the deceased, and some other Igbo cultures go on to require the woman to sit in one single “place of mourning” for one month, of which by day she is prevented from sleeping (by her peers watching over her to ensure the implementation of mourning practices to the latter, for the duration required). In some cultures still, this “place of mourning” is made very uncomfortable for the widow, amongst other degrading and dehumanizing activities that the widow is made to pass through, all in the name of mourning the dead, while the women folk of the village supervise the widow in mourning to the latter, to ensure she doesn’t falter at every given step.
In many places in Igbo land, the mourning period for the widow has been made less tedious, and this has been due to efforts by churches and missions, as well as efforts of husbands while they lived to instruct that their wives not be made to undergo strenuous traditional mourning activities after their death. Usually, once the nuclear family with sons, and the extended family who understands the widow stand with her, there is little else society can do to force widows to sit on ashes mourning the dead, or shave her hair, or bath with the water used to bathe the corpse of her late husband amongst others. If progress must be made to stop these dehumanizing mourning practices, it is the women that will have to be encouraged to see the folly in helping to perpetuate these harm against fellow women in the absolute patriarchy that’s the Igbo culture and tradition. Women shouldn’t just resign themselves to fate, while forcing their peers to do these things because it was done to them too, or because they know it will also come to them. Those harmful cultures must be challenged frontally, and in places where they can’t, they should not hinder or threaten women who refuse to mourn their husbands in demeaning and dehumanizing ways.
My mother didn’t go through the dehumanizing practices because everyone knew where my father stood on issues like that. She also has sons and family that people couldn’t easily toy with, but not all women are that fortunate. This is why it is important that the champions of this cause, be those who are saddled with the responsibility to perpetuate it- the Igbo women folk. Men do also have a role to play, seeing that they kinda make all of these decisions and rules, and could always find ways to modify them, without offending their “forefathers”, but I usually will want to put the advocacy for these changes on the doorstep of women folk, because they wear the shoe and they know where it pinches.
A widower is hardly questioned about how his wife died, and many of them go on to remarry almost as soon as their wives die, citing reasons such as having to get someone look after the children left behind by the late wife, since they are still very young and in need of that motherly care, amongst several others besides the fact that the man suddenly finds there’s no one to keep him warm at night in his bed. I didn’t intend to depress you with this but for me, it has been the aspect of Igbo Burials and Funerals that always leaves a gnawing in my innards, and have always itched for an opportunity to talk, if not write about it. There is consolation, howbeit little in the fact that changes are coming up, even in the most primitive and obscure parts of Igbo land, and it is modifications like those that don’t dehumanize mourning widows that we must encourage and help to perpetuate, so that the loss of a husband remains exactly just that, and nothing painfully else, that might eternally scar the woman physically and psychologically. Selah!