Death and Funerals

on Monday, 03 March 2014. Posted in Africa Travels


The other night I went to bed with the sound of wailing from a funeral not far away. I woke up to the same wailing in the morning. A woman had died during the birth of her fifth child. The child also died. She was having the child at the local community hospital, which has little facilities and by the time they considered transferring her to the regional hospital 40 kilometres away, it was too late. I don’t know the cause of death but people rarely know what relatives die from, even in such clear situations as birthing.

When seeing patients, I always try and find out what relatives die from. It can be useful in a homeopathic evaluation when looking at family history. But most people have no idea what relatives die from, even when itinvolves young children. They are hardly ever told and obviously in some cases, wouldn’t understand even if they were. Doctors generally have no obligation to tell people, so mostly, the answers I get are very vague. He died of headache, stomachache, diarrhea, etc. People are more willing to admit now if a relative died from AIDS but before, when the stigma was greater, this was also mostly denied. It is interesting to compare with the obsession to know that we have in Europe or North America, as if death is more of an affront to our senses than here in Africa where death seems to be a daily experience for many people. There is always someone dying and if a death occurs to someone you know, then you have to stop working and have to attend the funeral. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, it is a profound disrespect to keep working in any way, even if simply farming to eat.

As death is so common, it is much more accepted, and the fact of not knowing how someone dies gives the fatalism around death an even greater mystery. It is God’s will, after all. On the other hand, Western culture has more fear around death, and it is more controlled, sanitized and quarantined from daily life. We seek to overcome even death with hospitals keeping people alive until the bitter end and euthanasia laws still relatively unaccepted. Death is an affront to modern civilization and yet, especially in the USA, more people are dying from cancer than ever before.

In Malawi the vast majority of those who die are buried the next day as people can’t afford embalming. So the body needs to be buried quickly. Relatives will come from all over the country immediately and if the distances are very far, the funeral will go on for many days as relatives come to visit and neighbors need to be there to share their grief.

In Ghana, if one can afford it, or even if one cannot, the body is embalmed or frozen until the funeral date, which can be months later, giving families time to raise the capital needed. Funerals are expensive business and Ghana is famous for its wild coffin designs. You name the image, a coffin can be found imitating it. Cadillacs, Dolphins, Elephants, Rockets, whatever, it is there. The bigger the funeral, the more respect it denotes to the diseased and so families want to show how much respect a relative had in the community by putting on the biggest possible show. I went to one funeral of a local chief and when I entered the room, he was to be found sitting up in a chair, dressed in his finest regalia, the whole room decorated with fine materials. He was frozen solid, having been in deep freeze for a few months. Funerals cost poor families so much they go into debt for years. What Indians do for weddings, Ghanains do for funerals. Even the government is trying to persuade them not to spend so much money on them. They tend not to spend so much money in Malawi.

Surrounding the story of the death of the pregnant woman is that it was found out that the husband had been going with another woman during the pregnancy of his wife, a no no in this society, so her mother in law was blaming the death of her daughter onto the husband and it was creating much anguish all around. She was wanting to take the four children but the father was insisting he take them. I don’t know what happened in the end.