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Their wishes must be obeyed

BY: Elizabeth Ohene

In the past two weeks, two very high profile Americans have passed on. Even with the cheapening of what constitutes “Breaking News”, the death of both personalities would have qualified for what we old fogies would consider “Breaking News”.

The sudden death of US Supreme court judge, Antonin Scalia would have stopped any newsroom for all kinds of reasons. He had served on the United States Supreme Court for more than 30 years and had become the undoubted champion of the conservatives on the Bench and was celebrated for his wit and razor sharp intellect. And his was a sudden death; he had literally gone to bed on the night of February 12, and died in his sleep a few weeks short of his 80th birthday.

The second of the two high profile Americans I make reference to, Harper Lee, was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, the classic American literature novel that brought the story of racial intolerance in the Deep South to many of my generation. I am relieved to hear that some young people today still read it. More than 40 million copies of the book have been sold since its publication back in 1960. In other words, she was the type of person you would stop the presses for, as we used to say. She died on February 19, two months short of her 90th birthday.    

Both personalities are deserving of a full write-up in our nation’s biggest circulating newspaper, but I acknowledge there wouldn’t be many of our readers who would be interested and even though I consider it a great pity, I would spare you all a write-up on them.

Keeping bodies for long

I mention the passing away of the two therefore only to illustrate a point.

Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016. On Friday, February 19, his body was laid in repose at the Supreme Court, where President Barack Obama was among the more than six thousands that filed past and paid tribute. On Saturday February 20, 2016, Justice Scalia was laid to rest in a private family burial ceremony after a mass attended by thousands at the American Catholic church in Washington DC. All eight sitting members of the Supreme court attended the service and so did vice president Joe Biden. Everything that could be done to pay homage to an eminent citizen was done.

Harper Lee who died on February 19, was buried on February 21. Details of the service were fiercely guarded. The author, who for decades had lived out of the public eye and declined media interviews, had wanted a quick and quiet funeral without pomp or fanfare, family members said. "We obeyed her wishes”, a second cousin is reported as saying.

With these stories in the headlines, my mind goes inexorably to the question I have asked a thousand times, and apologies to those who have heard me on the subject, why do we in Ghana, keep dead bodies in the mortuary for so long before burying them?

How is it that it is possible to bury a Supreme Court justice with all the pomp and circumstance within a week of his dying, and it is impossible to contemplate such a situation here?  And how come the wishes of such a famous person on the type of funeral she wants can be obeyed and granted by her family and would not be contemplated here in Ghana for either the famous or those who lived outside the public eye.

I recall an incident during the time I served as a Minister in the Office of the President. A delegation came to formally announce the death of a former chief justice to the President. The head of family said “their son”, ie, the former chief justice, had left instructions on how he wanted his funeral to be conducted, and I mention two of his wishes.

Obeying wishes

He wanted to be buried within two weeks of his death (he had been dead more than two weeks before this visit to the Castle), he did not want a state burial. Obviously the two week-injunction had already been broken, and the President was informed that libation had already been poured and therefore if the President was minded to grant a state funeral, he shouldn’t have any inhibitions. Needless to say the state funeral was held and long after the two week period he had asked for.

I have not been able to determine the length of time that is deemed appropriate in our society to keep a body in the mortuary before burial. I do know that my siblings and I are still accosted and accused of having buried our mother “like a chicken”.

Our mother had asked that she not be kept in the mortuary for a long time, in the event of her death. The day she died, we told the family elders who we were assured by the custodians of the customary practices, had suddenly become the owners of our dead mother’s body, what her wishes were for her funeral.

We were told quite firmly they were not obliged to take any note of her wishes. The most persuasive argument made to us and which we accepted, was to abide by the traditional area rule that there should be burials and funerals only once a month. Thus we kept our mother for almost four weeks before her burial and funeral rites. Apparently this period of four weeks is deemed not quite long enough to have kept our dead mother’s body to demonstrate that she is loved, missed and respected. Her children will therefore have to live with the shame of having buried their mother “like a chicken”.

I cannot understand why we who are supposed to have such reverence for death and with it, all the rites that we have accumulated over time should believe it is okay to ignore the wishes of a dead person. I fail to appreciate the cultural significance of keeping a dead body in a freezer for months and sometimes, for years before burial. 

I have been trying to imagine the scene at Moroeville, Alabama last weekend when Harper Lee passed away and put it in a Ghanaian context. And so this woman who made our little town famous with her book wants to be buried quietly and without fuss. It will not happen. Libation will be poured; the gods will agree to ignoring her wishes and a committee will be constituted to plan an elaborate and befitting funeral for her. She will be lucky if an appropriate date could be found for the burial within the next three months to accommodate the attendance of all dignitaries who will all be introduced at the funeral service.

I hesitate to think of what we would have been doing here if faced with the sudden death of a Justice Scalia. Chances are the committee would still be arguing about the order in which the names of the chief mourners would appear in the obituary notice.  

There are two things we might turn attention to when dealing with death; respect the wishes of the departed and try not to keep the body in a freezer for a long period.