✕ CLOSE Online Special City News Entrepreneurship Environment Factcheck Everything Woman Home Front Islamic Forum Life Xtra Property Travel & Leisure Viewpoint Vox Pop Women In Business Art and Ideas Bookshelf Labour Law Letters

Christianity and burial carnivals

In his book, African Religions and Philosophy, the renowned African philosopher John S. Mbiti says: “For the Africans, death is a separation and not an…

In his book, African Religions and Philosophy, the renowned African philosopher John S. Mbiti says: “For the Africans, death is a separation and not an annihilation; the dead person is suddenly cut off from the human society and yet the corporate group clings to him. This is shown through the elaborate funeral rites, as well as other methods of keeping in contact with the departed.” The relatives of the dead believe that even though the soul of their dead one has gone up to meet the ancestors, it remains also near to them and can be approached through prayers, libations and offerings. Many African cultures believe that the more lavish the burial rites of the dead, the more rousing the welcome the soul of the dead is accorded in the domain of the ancestors. This thought accounted for, and still accounts for, the robust funeral celebrations in the African society.

With the advent of Christianity, the meaning and theology of death have been significantly altered. Christians believe that the appearance of death on the human horizon is the consequence of the disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve. However, Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection from the dead, has transformed the meaning of death as an inherited curse for sin to the gateway of eternal life with God. Because Christ died and rose again, Christians believe firmly that God will bring to dwell with Christ all those who have died believing in him. For this reason, our sense of grief at the passing of a loved one is moderated by our faith in the resurrection of the dead. For in death, life is changed, not ended. 

This view of death has both historical and philosophical roots. It goes back to the Greek thought on death, which was decisively shaped by Plato. Plato’s notion of death was both dualistic and idealistic. Matter was looked upon as a bad thing. Only the spirit counted as genuinely positive and God-like. On the strength of this view, the human person is a strange creature in which the two contrary realities of matter and spirit coincide. He held that the divine flame of the spirit is imprisoned in the dungeon of the body. The way of the wise man, accordingly, is to treat the body as the tomb of the soul and to prepare himself for immortality through such enmity to the prison house. Death, then, is the great moment when the gates of that prison house are flung wide open and the soul steps forth into that freedom and immortality which are its by right. Death is man’s true friend, his liberator from the unnatural chains of matter. 

As presented by Plato, Socrates is an exponent of this idealistic interpretation of death. He celebrated his own dying as a festal journey from the sickness of bodily life to the health of true living. At the moment of death, he asks that a cock be sacrificed to Aesculapius, the customary sacrifice offered in gratitude for a recovery. Death here is interpreted as emergence from the diseased semblance of life which is this world into real and lasting health. Of course, biblical thought, by contrast, sees man in his undivided wholeness and unity as God’s creature, not a dualistic being that can be sliced down the middle into body and soul. However, the full conspectus of the Christian teaching on death finds its deepest understanding in the person of Jesus, who gives life and death a new meaning. The biblical hope expressed in the resurrection gives death a new identity and a new meaning within the Christian economy of salvation. Those who believe in Jesus and who hold the teaching of the Christian faith see death from an entirely different worldview.

For a Christian who believes in the reality of the resurrection, this religious instinct places moderation on the type, kind and extent of celebration of the dead. There are still many cultural practices carried out during funeral rites that are antithetical to the tenets of Christianity. The clash of religion and culture is one area that remains a battlefield in our attempt to build a civilisation that is marked by values that are true, good, beautiful, noble, right, pure, admirable, praiseworthy, honourable and excellent. In many places, Christians who say they have accepted the teachings of Jesus Christ and the values associated with the Christian Gospel are still clinging to ancestral worship and the prescriptions of ancestral rites and cultic practices. We still hear of dehumanizing cultural practices during funeral rites. This is one area where we really need an evangelisation of culture and a prescription for the genuine conversion of the African traditional humanity. 

On the issue of burial carnivals in Nigeria, it is well known in many parts of the world that Nigerians are a boisterous people who love life and like to celebrate lavishly. The character of the average Nigerian is one that is exhibitionistic in outlook. In this light, lavish burial celebrations are a typical Nigerian phenomenon. Ours is a society where wealth and all its trappings command maximum social respect. The more money you have to throw around the more respect and recognition you get. In this social setting of twisted values, that places no restraint on pomp and ostentation, men and women who have insatiable ego for spectacle and glamour and a ballooned sense of their own self-importance find it very expedient to assert their financial power in brazen forms of public exhibition. In living and spending lavishly, they entertain themselves and others with the humane achievements of their wealth. This is partly why burials in Nigeria are conducted as carnivals where the rich display their wealth and the poor are invited to come and eat.

Some people have asked whether a funeral should mourn a death or celebrate a life. The answer cuts across the spectrum. Some funerals are seen as “a painful and sorrowful exit.” This is especially true when the dead is a young person who has not enjoyed the benefit of longevity. The deceased is often said to die prematurely, before his time. This is the thinking in our cultural surrounding where long life is seen as a blessing of God, and a brief life a tragedy. In the occasion where the deceased enjoyed longevity, the funeral is seen as “a celebration of life.” This means that the deceased lived life to the fullest. It is here that lavish parties and carnivals are rolled out to celebrate the life of the deceased. Many funerals today are not about mourning death but a “celebration of life.” As our culture discards all-black attire and other formalities of a traditional funeral, families create more personalized-and often more upbeat-experiences to honor the deceased.

However, we should always remember that death is a signpost of human finitude. It reminds us of the tragedy of sin, just as it calls to mind the grace of human redemption in Christ Jesus. Seen in this light, funerals should impose upon us a spirit of sobriety and moderation in the way we live. From the Christian perspective, burial carnivals are a waste of resources and an unnecessary show-off. The idea that the living would go to the extent of bankrupting themselves to commit the dead to the ground should offend Christian sensibility which sees death, not as final annihilation, but as a transition to new life that never ends. The Islamic rites of burial can offer us a convincing ideal about the need to apply simplicity and moderation in funeral celebrations. As Christians who look to “the things that are above,” an overly materialistic and consumerist attitude to funerals in this passing world calls to question the quality of our faith in the resurrection of the dead.

Father Ojeifo is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja.

%d bloggers like this: