Over the last twenty years and every week from Thursday afternoon until Saturday at dawn, the roads leading to Cotonou in Benin become the stage for deeply felt and increasingly expensive funeral practices.
A long procession of cars follows two police motorcycles with sirens wailing which escort a hearse; some cameramen film the parade and a band plays religious music at full volume in a pickup truck: this is how family members in Benin accompany the deceased to their native village for burial.
Some bearers may sometimes carry the casket on their shoulders and at other times the coffin stays in the hearse; all the relatives of the deceased, however get out of their cars when they reach the village.
All those attending a funeral wear new clothes made or bought especially for the occasion. Participants follow the casket according to kinship and relationship with the deceased and, meanwhile, the band continues to play both traditional and religious songs.
These kind of funeral ceremonies are deeply felt by both categories of citizens: those living in towns and those from the countryside. “Everything is so well organized … the band … the music … what perfect atmosphere!”, says a relative of the deceased.
Hountondji Nestor, called Babakè, founder of a funeral band which performs in the capital of Benin, says: ” People think that you are in straitened circumstances or that you did not love the deceased very much, if do not hire a band for their funeral.”
Perplexities arise when we consider that families in Benin go bankrupt and live in debt long after performing the burial rites of their loved ones. Funerals in Africa are even much more expensive than weddings. The farewell to a loved one has become terribly costly. Families of deceased people, among the other expenses, must pay the charges of the mortuary where a corpse is deposited for weeks, sometimes for months, since it is necessary to wait for the arrival of relatives residing in distant places, according to tradition. In addition to this, the relatives of the deceased must provide food for the guests, and everything which is needed to organize a funeral worthy of the rank of the deceased and that of their children.
The funeral band, despite the fact that it is expensive, is an essential element in African funeral ceremonies, since people think it is important to accompany the deceased in a solemn manner, because the loved one deserves to be respected and honoured. “We honour the deceased by creating a solemn atmosphere, we walk along with relatives. The band draws people”, says Babakè. Modern funerals have become a business. Funerals are public events, where families compete for prestige and respect by showing off wealth, and by publicly conforming to norms of solidarity and respect for the dead. Weeks or even months and a lot of money are spent in organising an event, which will impress everybody.
But it is also true that rites are always moments of aggregation and sharing, especially in Africa. The entire family pays for the funeral expenses, in one way or another. “Everybody must contribute to the expenses. The richest of the family are not supposed to pay for everything; every single member of the family must do their part. Funeral is a social and collective ritual”, says Dah Aligbono, member of the Council of the traditional leaders of Benin. He is convinced that families face all these enormous expenses (new clothes, the band, food for relatives and friends) and even go bankrupt, not in order to observe traditions, but to show off wealth to the others and to themselves. “If they knew and observed traditions correctly – Aligbono underlines – they would limit funeral celebrations to the essentials. People need to be educated about true values and our real traditions.”
Jean Baptiste Sourou