Dreadful but inevitable for all, yet we hardly pray for it. Some referred to it as necessary end, while others say it brings all humans irrespective of our inequality equal.
It is by the creator’s design that all living things will experience death as life here on earth is not interminable. Apart from the biblical Enoch and Elijah by God’s sovereignty, whose deaths were not clearly established, no other humans were conferred with such immortality.
A question was asked by one man out of grief at a funeral during a wake: “When is a person old enough to die?” The preacher in his response to the question said one is old enough to die as soon as he or she is old enough to live.
Almost all religions are in tandem in their tenets that at a stage on this planet earth, death which marks the transition from the physical to spiritual realm will take place. Indeed, it then follows that conception begins life and death terminates it. Death is liable to come at any time for various reasons ranging from natural, spiritual, health, human induced to physical. Worse still, it is neither gender specific nor age specific. It cuts across all cultures.
Little wonder, the Yoruba in their wisdom hold a three-fold belief that when, where and how death will strike remains unknown.
Defining death holistically therefore has also generated serious controversies. This makes formulating a precise medical or conservative definition becomes more difficult. In most cases, death is looked at as the departure of the soul from the body. This also implies that the personality soul which is the spiritual substance and essence has departed. Then, the physical body is left lifeless.
The advance in scientific knowledge has proved that all death indicators such as respiratory cessation, cardiac arrest, brain death and neuronal cessation are no longer enough to ascertain it. One clear fact which stands out is that the exact moment of human death is subjective.
Pliny the Elder, in his Historial Naturalis (Natural History), also affirmed this by saying: “So uncertain is men’s judgment that they cannot determine even death itself.” So, in nearly all circumstances, human death is a process rather than an event.
More often than not, fear of being buried at coma or in an unconscious stage has long haunted humankind such that death certification has called for stricter rules. This is because there have been cases of people being declared dead by physicians and returning back to life hours, day(s) later in coffins or at the commencement of embalming activities. Aside the cases of natural disasters such as earthquakes, cave-in mines, tsunamis and others where accidental live burial could be said to take place; burial in humans follows normal funerals.
Despite the aforementioned, what happens when death occurs are cessation of breathing, pulse and neuronal activity. These actions eventually trigger paleness, settling down of the blood in the lower portion of the body, speedy decline in body temperature, stiffness of the limbs and initiation of decomposition processes emitting strong unpleasant odour. In developed countries, autopsy or post-mortem generally referred to as coroner inquest is often carried out to determine the time, cause and manner of a person’s death and to evaluate any disease or injury that may be present.
This is done by a certified pathologist usually for legal or medical purposes. When there are intricacies of crime, then forensic examination is ordered. Whichever way, death of humans is considered a sad or an unpleasant occasion due to the affection for the deceased and termination of social family bonds.
Death takes the centre stage of many traditions and organizations. In Africa, death is categorized into sudden and timely, of aged or young. Sudden and untimely deaths receive no full funeral rites. Such deaths include: that of children, the wicked, thieves, evil ailment, still births, lunatics, suicides, and a person burnt or drown.
Others could be legal, involving capital punishment for cases of murder, treason, espionage. Others are coup plotting, adultery, sodomy, drug trafficking, apostasy among others. Premature and untimely death as most African beliefs could be human induced e.g. witch-crafty, sorcery, oath violation and evil forces.
The funeral for these categories of death is usually hurriedly done with short or no time for mourning. Desired or timely death is believed to be as a result of ripe old age (senescence), a life well spent having survived all the odds of life-threatening circumstances. An exemption to this is the death of a person, though young, but led and lived a meaningful life leaving the children behind.
Often times, adults are reluctant to talk about death, dying and funerals with our children, but we must discuss our cultural beliefs about life, death and afterlife. In most African family settings, aged people usually summon family members to meetings where crucial family issues are discussed as regards “will”, esoteric, grave location ,family land, dos and don’ts among others.
After death, it has been the universal custom to prepare the corpse for final disposal.
This preparation has in most cases induced washing and dressing in special garments and sometimes its public exposure referred to as: “Lying in state.” More often than not, funerals accompanied burial and are held according to the family’s choice.
Funerals are a time for friends and family to come together to say thank you, good bye, and I love you to the deceased. Thereafter, the family receives comfort from people who care. Funeral rites are as old as human culture itself. Worthy of mention is the burial time which varies according to cultures, religions, societal dictates and family decisions.
The Jews, Islamic faithful, Hindus, etc waste no time in burying the deceased, while Christians allow more time. They deem it necessary that certain people must be present such as close relatives and the children of the deceased as the case may be. This is to enable those who may be far away having opportunity to witness the burial of their beloved.
In Islam, burial takes place as soon as possible.
After collective bathing for cleansing, shrouding of the corpse in a white cloth is performed and funeral prayer called Janazah will be offered. The custom, style and burial vary according to regions. Grave is always at right angle to Mecca, while grave mound is slightly raised for attention. Lowering of the corpse into the grave is not for all comers, but according to Islamic injunctions. It is required that the corpse is positioned eastward toward the holy land of Kabbah.
Then, the family representative supervises the covering up and shaping the grave by Muslim adherents.
Christians objected cremation as it negates the doctrine of resurrection of the body, while inhumation is practiced almost exclusively. This method is inherited from Judaism and exemplifies Jesus’ burial. Wake is a gathering for chanting of psalms and other biblical passages observed in the evening preceding the burial. No eating or drinking like the heathens at the wake. The burial service is in most cases is four-folds; at the deceased residence, going to the church, at the church and from the church to the grave.
Nowadays, some denominations employ the services of the undertakers probably to assist the bereaved family and add excitement of some sort, while others ignore it. Ceremony in the church varies according to denominations, but it is common to witness series of prayers, candle lit, mass, absolution, sprinkling of holy water, thanksgiving etc. At the grave site or already consecrated cemeteries, the priest intones relevant bible verses and the coffin is lowered into the grave. Three handful of soil is ordered to be poured over the casket connoting “dust for dust, earth for earth, ash for ash”, wreath of flowers are occasionally placed and the final comment by all well wishers is “May His gentle Soul Rest in Peace.
Traditionally, it is not possible to exhaust all the aspects of burial in a cultural setting, but a few familiar ones in the context of the three major tribes in Nigeria shall be highlighted. This perhaps gives a basis for comparative consideration and general appreciation. Hausa tribe of Nigeria follows Islamic burial principles. Islamic religion frowns at cremation, preservation at the morgue and embalmment. The deceased is washed and wrapped in a shroud. This is followed by prayers and Quranic recitation. Burial is most times done within a day. Thereafter, relatives receive condolences.
In Yoruba culture, life and death are being reconciled with highly potent connective symbolism. Yoruba people strongly believe when one dies, the community dies in him, but because the community continues to live, the person lives again in the community. However, the corpse is treated by shaving the male’s hairs and beautifully plaited the female hairs. The corpse is then washed, dressed and lies in state. An attempt is made to slow down decay by sealing the natural openings with cotton wool soaked in palm kernel oil or strong perfume.
Usually the burial is done within a day. On the way to the grave, a gun is fired up to initiate the procession comprising the family, relatives and well wishers. A man leads the corpse bearers holding a live fowl whose feathers he plucks until they reach the grave. The fowl will be prepared for the corpse bearers to eat reminding them that death is inevitable for all. Inhumation is the rule. The coffin is lowered into the grave using ropes, and then people throw personal gifts including money inside as a mark of honour for the deceased. The grave is covered and gunshot is heard to announce end of burial.
Among the Igbo, death is traditionally a highly ritualized event filled with deep mourning. The burial involves two funerals whose main intention is to safely escort the deceased from the realm of the living to the spirit world. Sound of gunshots herald in various groups on the day of burial who deliver oration, children give their message and general solemn wailing takes place. At wake, the eldest son welcomes people into their home with kolanuts and palm wine. Prayer and libation are observed to attract ancestral spirit into the deceased home. The next morning, the corpse is immediately taken to the burial site.
At the grave, most valued personal items of the deceased such as clothes, tools, emblem, gun, pot, dishes etc are deposited in the grave as the coffin is lowered by the young men. Then, the grave is filled up with soil a little bit above ground level. The second burial according to Igbo tradition involving merry making is believed to safely send off the deceased to the land of the dead.
It is pertinent to highlight some burial practices in other parts of the world. In part of South Korea and India the body is cremated, the ashes is pressed into a jewelry-like beads, often colourful and kept in an urn or bottle.
The Philippines are of the opinion that the closer the coffin is to the sky, the closer the deceased is to heaven. Still in Philippine Tinguain funeral involves people dressing the dead in their best clothes, sitting them in chairs and giving them a smoke for several weeks. The use of jade burial suit is found among the noble families in China, typical of Han dynasty.
The jades are made to appear like suit of armour, very expensive and take longer time to complete thus keeping the corpse intact for long. In Madagascar, people dig up their dead every 5-7years to take care of them. They re-wrap the dead, spray perfume on them, dance with them and share stories.
In Kiribati burial is inhumation, but a few months after, the body is exhumed and the skull is taken out. The family will polish, oil, preserve and display the skull in their homes. Sometimes offerings of food and tobacco are made to it. Sky burial in Tibet is another spectacle, where vultures and other birds of prey are allowed to pick the body as an act of charity. Once the body is picked clean, the bones left over are ground up and fed to crows.
Let the truth be told, we shall all die one way or the other. Our goal should not be to live forever, but to create something that will. With time one ages and with age one comes close to the end. With time, one builds a family, a home, a name and with age one learns to live without them. Death is universal.
. Oluwole is a staff of National Commission for Museums and Monuments. He wrote in from Osogbo, Osun State.