I started writing about Igbo funerals at a time I found myself attending funerals of not so close relatives because it fell on me a few years back, so to do on behalf of my family. I never imagined that such funerals will begin to touch so very close to home till I lost my father and my sister to the cold hands of death in quick succession this year, after they both lost their battles to chronic infirmities. My personal experience when my father died furnished my knowledge on the subject for which I responded in kind, with a treatise. Having experienced, again personally, the funeral of a sister, it has become pertinent that I shared also the Igbo culture as related to the burial and funeral of a daughter, wife and mother. I must quickly add here, that if I can help it, I wouldn’t like to write anymore about activities related to Igbo burials from personal experiences, and that’s even by no means wishing others the death I wouldn’t like in my family, except those described as “ripe and desirable.”
But life is a reality, so also is death, and both happens even to the best of us. The death of a married woman isn’t taken lightly in Igbo land, as everyone, indeed families who ever contributed in one way or the other to who she was and ultimately became will play important roles in her burial and funeral. Following the death of such a woman, regardless of whether her “maiden” family have been made aware of her demise or not, the husband and his family will have to go to her ancestral home in Nigeria’s southeast (Igboland) to inform them of her (untimely) demise, as the case may be. In most Igbo cultures, the breaking of this news is somewhat theatrical, involving two stages. The widower and his kin are made to present themselves to his late wife’s kin with “Kola” (kolanut, garden eggs and peanut butter), to inform them that their daughter has taken ill (the specifics aren’t important at this time) and she is currently under care at a hospital, her family’s response will be that they wish her well, and hope she gets well soon.
The widower and members of his kindred will thereafter leave the gathering to confer, then return to inform his late wife’s people that she’d died while on treatment at the hospital, to which her people will respond with shock and sadness, acknowledge the information and invite them fully to talk. At this point the man’s people will present before their hosts, drinks, usually spirit(s), beer, malt and soft drinks, before digging into the crux of the matter, which includes the manner of her illness and death. Once the late woman’s paternal family are convinced that there’s no evidence of foul play, from sources even beyond the widower and his kin, they’d go ahead to discuss the nature of the burial and funeral, their entitlements and what’s required of the man in terms of mourning for his late wife. The bereaved man and his family will leave after an agreement has been reached as regards all that would’ve been discussed, to relay the date of the wake keeping and burial to their in-laws when they eventually arrive at the date.
The wake keep ceremony is as described in my earlier treatises on this subject so I won’t go further to elaborate here. Even the initial stages of the burial won’t be any different from the ones I described earlier, featuring a church service either within the church premises (as with most Christian denominations) or within the premises of the bereaved husband’s family house in the village, as with sabbatarians and other so called “spiritually-inclined missions/churches”. Where the mother of the late woman is still alive, she isn’t compelled to witness her daughter’s burial, though she could attend the church service, when it’s held within the church premises but leave to a separate location as others go on to inter her late daughter’s body in her husband’s compound. Should the other situation subsists, i.e. church service within the premises of the bereaved husband’s home, she is not to be seen there at all.
There’s a particular matter I wish to address before going any further. It concerns the lying-in-state for the late woman. In most Igbo culture the widower brings the body for a lying-in-state in her ancestral home, for her people to see and pay her her last respect, which includes “Ipu-Akwa” literally “covering/clothing the body”, where those who come, present to her family a piece of unsewn fabric (about six yards), some money in an envelope and drinks. Sometimes older women may be buried in her ancestral/father’s home, such a right can also be accorded the body of a daughter whose death is considered controversial, although the man may not be told of their intention, until he brings her body for a lying-in-state, and they detain the body in a bid to bury “their daughter”in her father’s house. In a few cases however it is by mutual understanding, but what is prevalent is that the body lies in state in her ancestral home, before onward movement to her husband’s home to be interred. These days when marriages are contracted from one end of the earth to the other, sometimes compromises are reached that allow the widower not bring the body of his late wife to her ancestral home before going on to bury her in his home town.
With that off the chest, and she’s been interred at her husband’s homestead, as is norm in many parts of Igboland. Part of the funeral activities, include the sending and receiving of condolence messages and gifts. Those bearing condolence messages come with a piece of cloth, envelope with cash, a crate of beer, malt and mineral drinks each. The case is much different when the delegation (male and female) of in-laws “Ndi Ogo” present themselves, as on their being sighted making their way to the canopy sheltering the widower and his people, some members of the host hasten to present them with a Cock to calm frayed nerves of in-laws who at about the time will make a show of destroying things, cutting branches off trees etc, to show unhappiness at the demise of “their daughter”. On receipt of the cock, they will proceed to a canopy provided for them, from where they will proceed, this time in an orderly manner to present their condolence message and gifts which include, a piece of cloth, a crate of beer, malt drink, soft drinks, an envelope containing cash, sometimes spirits as they so desire, though not compulsory, to the widower and his kith and kin.
After exchanging pleasantries and comforting words to each other, the Ndi-Ogo are once again ushered back to their canopy, where they are presented food and drinks of assorted types with lots of meat. While Ndi-Ogo chows away at the food presented them, the widower and his kin will make a presentation of two goats, one an “Ikenga Ewu” (tall goat common in Nigeria’s north, with breasts), and an “Agbala Ewu” (short statured goats common in southeastern Nigeria, that’s not pregnant), this is followed immediately by another presentation titled “Ibu Naga L’Ozu Ngiga” (this information on what it entails is usually given the man at the time he performed the traditional rites of marriage to his now late wife), literally returning their daughters’ kitchen utensils, in a basket which will contain a keg of palm oil, a container of salt, fifteen pieces of kolanut, fifteen tubers of yam, a hen, a kitchen knife (not necessarily new), as well as an axe, amongst others. Once the in-laws are satisfied with the presentation, they may leave, after eating and entertaining themselves, for their village, while others continue to bring their condolence messages and gifts to the bereaved family and also get entertained all day, and the next, even up to a week in some cases, as long as the widower remains in the village.
What I’ve described to you is what’s obtainable amongst the Igbo of mainly Anambra stock, you’d find slight variations amongst other Igbo groups, and all these despite the huge costs to the bereaved is seen as paying respect to the dead, whose passing mustn’t go unnoticed or uncelebrated, as the case may be. It also signifies to the outside world that she didn’t fall from the sky, but is from a people, a proud people at that. It also marks the culmination and end of that marriage, though both families will now remain bound together by other ties, such as with the children that the marriage, while it lasted produced. Those children will now have some rights in their maternal ancestral land, as a place of refuge should they ever find themselves at odds with their father’s people.