THE BURIAL INDUSTRY by Mitterand Okorie

No death, no burial. No burial, no ceremony. It’s that simple. Except that it is not. Burials spin the wheels of what I call the village economy. Everybody gets to line their pockets. I’ve seen men paying for levies which village elders said their father’s owed before dying. There’s no way to confirm that. Dead men don’t talk. Yet, unless those levies get paid, the man won’t be lowered to the ground. They pay up, fuming away back to the city, swearing never to let those uncles smell a Kobo of their money ever again. This year, a friend of mine lost his father. At first, I thought he was taking it too hard. But much to my surprise, I found it wasn’t much about his 91 year old father passing, than about the many financial requests by village elders, levies to pay, groups to settle, etc. Burials have a special way or relocating city money down to the village. Besides Christmas festivity, burial is the biggest economic activity in the hinterland. While it is purported to be a solidarity of grief, there isn’t much mourning happening. Mouths move, but they are busier with food than wailing. There’s jollof, there’s chicken, beef, pork and bush meat, mouths reducing grains of rice and meat to mush. After all, what's left in your belly is what you take to your grave. In the burial industry, the village beer supplier makes a killing, so too the village catering company, the village canopy and plastic chairs company, the live band company, the Ogene group, the coffin maker, the palmwine tapper, name it, everybody makes money, and can’t possibly wait for the next person to die. Of course, nobody ever says this, but you can’t say they’ll be happy when people stop dying. Three weeks ago, I drove to Nnewi from Umuahia, first through Isiala-Ngwa (Umuika junction), to Ngor-Okpala, then Owerri. On my way back the next day, I followed the Mbaise-Obowo road, I counted in total, seven different burial ceremonies. Three between Umuikaa and Okpala, four on the Mbaise-Obowo axis. Each of these ceremonies involved road blocks of some degree, causing a fair amount of traffic jam. People stay on the road, 30 minutes to 1 hour more than necessary. This is waste. This is the opportunity cost of me sitting down to write a 1,000 word article, that could fetch me money. And should I decide not to pursue this goal, I would be well rewarded to use an hour sleep or to read an article on New York Times. This political economy of death is anchored on the dock of epic wastefulness. Why would your burial ceremony mediate or restrict the use of public roads or facilities? This choreography of waste became quite disturbing to an extent that families are torn apart after the burial of a kin, because hardship knocked on their door like a heartless Pharisee. If you waste scarce resources burying the dead, economic privation would visit you afterwards like the antelope that takes its vengeance on a paralysed lion. Some years ago I think (not very sure about this) the Catholic authorities in Nigeria announced that they would no longer say Requiem Masses for bodies that stay in the mortuary beyond a period of 90 days. I suppose, to make people avoid the senseless waste. But how do you sanitise the burial industry when burials have become one more avenue for showing off. “I killed 100 cows for my mum’s burial”, “The State Governor gave me 50 cows for my father’s wake-keeping”, these kinds of frivolous talk you find in the conversations of both rich and barely rich. Except for their fat bank balance, rich Nigerians aren’t that different from their financially disadvantaged countrymen. The mentally is worryingly same. I once saw a short clip of a burial event where a couple of uniformed men were tossing a casket up and catching it. Of course, there were as much cheerful faces in the crowd as there were horrified ones. They catch the casket again mid-air, and toss it higher, catching it again and dancing around like circus clowns. I wondered: who pays for grossness like this? But they to are part of the economic chain of burial rites. In the end, what is an occasion to pay the last respects to the dead is hardly one for sober reflection but a festivity in and of itself, full of pomp, glee and waste. The burial industry ensures that the village economy never suffers recession. Because while everyone can be expected to lack money, the man who has to bury the dead has no excuse not to spend. He would spend all he has now, and cry later.

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