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A place to be laid to rest - Elizabeth Ohene writes

• The Osu Cemetery

My apologies to those who have heard me on the subject of Ghanaian funerals. It is a subject on which I have had a lot to say and indeed some friends and family have sought to impose a gag on me not to write or say anything publicly on it. 

I have been waging a doomed one- woman campaign against what I see as the Ghanaian obsession with funerals. I cannot come to terms with the amount of time we spend on funerals in general, and in particular, the amount of time we keep dead bodies in fridges before they are buried. I cannot understand why death always seems to bring so much tension within families. 

I am unable to understand why the definition of “family” seems to change when someone dies and a spouse suddenly loses all rights when a husband or wife dies. I will never understand why my head of family had the power to say my mother’s wish to be buried within two weeks could be ignored. I cannot understand why families can totally disregard the stated wishes of a dead person. 

I recall the scene when the family of a former Chief Justice came to inform the President of the Republic that the man had died. The head of family stated the Chief Justice had left written instructions he was to be buried within 10 days of his death and he did not want a state burial. The trip to inform the President came on more than 10 days after the death and need I add that he was given a state burial.

Traumatic experience 

It is difficult to stop me once I start on the subject of death and funerals in Ghana and I have tried and by and large have avoided the subject, but last Friday I had to go to Osu cemetery for the burial of a very dear friend. It turned out to be the most traumatic experience and that event, plus the announcement of the plans to organise the final funeral rites of Dr JB Danquah 50 years after his death, have brought me, some might say for the umpteenth time, to the subject of death and funerals in our country.


Fifty years ago today on February 4, 1965, the man who is credited with naming our country and who played a leading role in the struggle for independence from British colonialism, died in a prison cell at Nsawam Medium Security prison. This incident of Dr Danquah dying in prison was one of the traumas of my youth. 

My father and four other friends of his who were teachers in Mawuli School in Ho in the Volta Region had been thrown out of the school at the end of 1958 and told they couldn’t work or live in the Volta Region. They were said not to be supporters of the ruling Convention People’s Party (CPP). My father ended up in Abuakwa State College, Kyebi with his family, none of whom spoke or understood a word of Twi. We lived there for six years and it was during this period that my father and I briefly met Dr Danquah in his home in Kyebi. 

When he died in prison I was heartbroken and when I heard that the authorities had decreed that he had to be buried that same day without any of the usual rites accorded to dead people, I was scandalised. 

This is probably the place to state that I used to be a great admirer of Ghanaian funerals. When I lived outside Ghana, there was nothing I recalled with more nostalgia than funerals. 

Above all, I loved the cemeteries or at least what I thought I remembered of cemeteries in Ghana. In my village and in other towns and villages in the country, cemeteries were sited just outside the town and were peaceful, well-laid out places. The entire congregation used to follow the coffin and walk to the cemetery for the burial. Each grave had a frangipani tree at the head which provided the shade that made the cemeteries such cool and attractive places.

No peace , no beauty

Now cemeteries are far from town and you need a bus for the few people who would make it to the cemetery. And cemeteries are no longer the beautiful and peaceful places of my youth. 

The best example of what cemeteries are like in Ghana these days is the Osu cemetery. It is a truly horrible place and should not and cannot be a resting place for anybody. If anybody had any doubts about population explosion in Ghana, simply make a journey to Osu cemetery. 

Cemeteries are now overcrowded and feel like the crowded streets and slums of the towns and cities. Higgledy-piggledy is the word that comes to mind in trying to describe cemeteries now in our country. The Osu cemetery looks like a place of perpetual rioting, and it is difficult to imagine that anybody could be laid to rest there. 

I am looking forward to the city authorities and the population in general coming to the conclusion that the Osu cemetery is not a fit place to bury anybody. We might even agree to knock down all the higgledy-piggledy gravestones and have a smooth green lawn with uniform small headstones just as in the military cemetery next door. Then we would have a fitting resting place for those buried in Osu cemetery. 

I believe the long term solution is for us to adopt cremation; we wouldn’t need as much space, we would save the wood for coffins and cemeteries will again look like resting places. 

And 50 years after he died, an appropriate resting place is to be found for JB Danquah, the Doyen of Ghana politics. He is going to be reburied and he will be accorded final funeral rites just like every other Ghanaian.  I am certainly glad that he is not going to be buried in Osu cemetery or in the newish fancy cemetery where the space for a grave costs GH¢ 18,000.00 and is leased for 18 years. After 50 years of being buried according to rules imposed by a government, it is good to know JB Danquah is going to be laid to rest properly. I shall be at that funeral.

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