Archbishop Palmer-Buckle’s “Funeral Oration”

Published on 1st November 2010

Ghanaian elites are fast getting involved in the enlightenment movement from their diverse stations in life. As the movement gathers steam, backed by the Ghanaian mass media, one area of the Ghanaian traditional life that has come under the enlightenment flashlight is the implications of the dead and funeral on the living.

It is a tough area that borders on the complicated traditional cosmology. The attempts aren’t to tinker with traditional cosmology but to debunk the misinterpretation of traditional cosmology, especially in the southern parts of Ghana, where millions of dollars are profligately spent on the dead and funerals while majority languish in wrenching poverty and are stuck in backward social infrastructure.

While the traditional funeral ceremony celebrates, consecrates, or remembers the life of the deceased, in today’s Ghana, it has become a big showbiz and given way to bling bling. The excessive funerary bling bling leaves some deceased families debt-ridden and poorer, as they try to out-bling bling other deceased families in their locality. All this is done in an atmosphere of twisting poverty that calls for proper eating, good sanitation, suitable schools, water inadequacies, toilet shortages, rigorous healthcare systems, and generally more durable socio-economic infrastructure.

A modern toilet facility anywhere in Ghana could be built with GH¢ 7,500 (around US$6,919) with some change for funeral ceremonies. The amount is the minimum cost of a funeral ceremony for an ordinary Ghanaian (Yes, I know this amount is too much to build a toilet but let’s put it that way as per helping the living to live better and still have a simple funeral ceremony).

Charles Palmer-Buckle, the Archbishop of Accra Catholic Diocese observes that too much money is lavishly spent on the dead and funerals, “…depriving descendants of the deceased the badly needed resources they need … a funeral for an ordinary Ghanaian now costs a minimum of GH¢ 7,500 (around US$6,919) … it is ridiculous to spend such an amount to "celebrate" a deceased person, who left behind a number of children who are yet to find their feet in life.”

Parallels can be drawn between Palmer-Buckle’s deep deliberations about Ghanaians’ excessively wasteful expenditure on the dead and Pericles’ “Funeral Oration.” As Thucydides, the Greek thinker, recorded in book two of his History of the Peloponnesian War, it was established Athenian practice in the late 5th century to hold a public funeral in honour of the dead in war. With the remains of the dead left out for three days in a tent and offerings made for the dead, a funeral procession was held and burial undertaken. The last part of the funeral ceremony was a speech delivered by a prominent Athenian citizen. Pericles was picked to give the oration. In the “Funeral Oration,” as inscribed by Thucydides, Periclesdid praise the dead but intentionally gave much more praise to Athens’ achievements which are “designed to stir the spirits of a state still at war.”

There is no war in Ghana, but there is war to be fought on the socio-economic front against poverty and erroneous cultural beliefs that inhibit progress. According to Pericles’ oration, the dead should be praised, as African tradition dictates. Palmer-Buckle purposefully moves beyond that and proclaims that though the dead should be honoured, the living, too, should be fully taken care of before they die. He further observes that funeral ceremonies have become a competing theater of ostentation to the detriment of the living who are short of  bread-and-butter and other socio-economic conveniences such as toilets and water.

At issue isn’t death or Ghanaians’ traditional cosmology, but how the escalating expenditure on the dead today. The battle of the enlightenment thinkers, as Palmer-Buckle echoes, is to re-wire Ghanaians to go back to their traditional roots where funeral ceremonies were simple and non-ostentatious.

Kweku Akosah, One of the leading funeral services proprietors in Ghana, owns the Owners Funeral Services. Owners Funeral Services, driven by Ghanaians sheer obsession with the dead has grown so much that it has branches in most parts of Ghana. Akosah employs over 100 people with varied professionals – wailers, criers, dancers, praise-singers, decorators of the dead, coffin makers, musicians, tailors and seamstresses, promoters, food makers and servers among others.  As Akosah’s funeral business becomes increasingly sophisticated, he finances certain funerals against the backdrops of agreements of sharing profits with the deceased families. Akosah is on the verge of building a state-of-the-art mortuary in Kumasi.

Palmer-Buckle and his associated enlightenment folks’ stance is a difficult position because it is misunderstood by many a Ghanaian traditionalists as impinging on the sacred area of Ghanaians’ cosmology, no matter how this impinge adversely on the life of the living Ghanaian. At issue isn’t the cosmology, but the living who need food, shelter, education, water, sanitation and health, roads, and other comforts of life. Through Thucydides’ Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” Palmer-Buckle bravely looks more at the living than the dead.

“Instead of spending hugely on the dead, Ghanaians must establish an endowment fund in memory of the deceased, which would be used to sponsor education of their relatives to realize their full potential … children would largely remember their great grandfather in whose memory a fund was established to sponsor their education as against their relatives who much money was spent to bury them and left behind debts,” advises Archbishop Palmer-Buckle.

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