Posts Tagged Funeral Customs

Closing the eyes of the dead

In my last post on Translation thoughts I left off the last phrase of verse four, “Joseph will lay his hand on your eyes.”  How God understands our fears and speaks to them. Here he gently reassures a frail elderly Jacob. ( He was after all a hundred and thirty, and joined the women and small children to ride to Egypt in a wagon.)

His son Joseph will be there at his death bed and be there afterward –  to close his eyes, to see to his funeral arrangements, and to take his remains back to be buried in the family plot in Canaan.

I wondered if “closing the eyes of the dead” was another Hebraic idiom borrowed into English.  The first English Bible translations tended to translate idioms quite literally and many have become comfortably ensconced in our consciousness .  We would be loath to give them up.

In this case, closing the eyes of the dead,  pre-dates Christianity, back to earlier fears of ghosts that haunt.  In checking out the roots of the expression I found a fascinating article, The Primitive Ghost and his Relations, by James G. Frazer- published in the Popular Science Journal in 1885. Closing the eyes of the dead, and much more.

And No! No! No, No!  I am not going to write about Halloween this year.


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Canadian Funeral

We drove down to Picture Butte last Friday for the funeral of my husband’s junior father.  Over the years I have developed a rather hybrid view of funerals, first by attending hundreds of Ghanaian funerals, and more recently by attending funerals here in Canada.

One thing that comes through in both cultures is that a funeral truly speaks to who the person was.  Good people have good funerals. Those who loved others have funerals characterized by love given back.  This one was a lovely memorial to a good man. I think his language of love must have been “doing.”   There were many tributes to the things he had built and the renovation projects he had helped various ones with.  The last line of his childrens’ tribute was, “Don’t renovate all of Heaven before we get there.”

Perhaps because he was the last of his siblings, the funeral also drew out a gathering of cousins my husband had not seen for close to forty years.

Canadians do not enjoy funerals; but in Ghana funerals are designed, I think, for the pleasure of the one who has died. They celebrate the things he enjoyed in life, and have an aspect of sending him off well.  I believe Uncle Lloyd would have enjoyed the family gathering; of his children, their spouses,  grand-children and nieces and nephews at the house. I know Aunt Doris appreciated having her children around her.  We expressed sympathy but also caught up with family members and found comfort in the warmth of reaffirming family bonds.

And I renewed my acquaintance with small town mores.  You see, I’m a small town girl.  I expect to say hello to people on the street as I pass, and I expect to help strangers and to find help when I need it.  And we needed it.  We had a problem with being at the right place at the right time.  We had gotten up at 4:30 a.m. in order to make it in time for the burial.  Our Ghanaian instinct says- What’s a funeral without a burial? (or, speak it softly, without a wake, for that matter.) Isn’t that the point of it all?

I have this feeling that the time you are most sure to be late is the time you arrive an hour early.  We had been told that Picture Butte did not have a graveyard (how could that be?) and that the burial would be at Iron Springs a few kilometers down the road. So we drove to Iron Springs- a prairie whistle stop with a large Christian Reformed Church, and a school.  It made me think of a small-sized Neerlandia.

A man in his yard gave us directions and we found the cemetery a mile out of town.  No activity.  One small mound of new dirt but from outside the fence you couldn’t see much.  We met up with Wes’ mother and siblings who had driven in from Calgary, looked at the clock and went for coffee.  Came back- we were about 10 minutes early.  No activity at the graveyard, and on closer inspection no newly dug grave, certainly not one lined with artificial turf with funeral home attendants fussing around it. In fact, nobody.

We decided we must be at the wrong place after all.  So we drove back to Picture Butte.  And that’s where the small town folks did not let me down.  The waitress at the small cafe helpfully dug up yesterday’s paper and the funeral announcement, but it said nothing about the burial. She found cousin Jack’s phone number, and the number of his work place, and they in turn gave me his cell phone number.  Naturally- he had it turned off for the service.  We were given directions to the church- unlocked, but also unoccupied.

Still looking, but not wanting to bother the waitress again,  we asked to use the phone book at another business. Unfortunately neither Uncle Lloyd nor Jack listed a street address by their phone number- who, in a small town, would need to do that?  However the manager asked around and found out that one church in town did have a cemetery.  Nobody we knew was there either. Apparently they only bury their own.

Finally I said, “Let’s stop at the post-office, that’s where town news gets spread.”  The first lady leaving,  knew Uncle Lloyd but was  not too clear in giving directions to the house.  “If you go back to the main highway. . .”

And that’s where a cousin sent out to find us caught up with us.

If we’d only waited a few more minutes at the cemetery we would have met the funeral.  You only need a small hole to bury an urn.

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Autumn Man- courtesy of Tim

When my father died of a brain tumor in early December in 2007, my husband was in Ghana, and my mother was in the next room down the hall in the hospital, still with a tracheostomy,  just out of a month in intensive care.  I called our son Tim down from Edmonton to help me keep the last vigils.  He was also there beside me on the snowy day that we buried Dad, and sang “Up from the Grave He Arose” as the coffin was lowered.  I’m too Ghanaian to walk away from a cemetery with a coffin eerily suspended over a hole surrounded by artificial turf.

Some time the next summer Tim sent me this.

Autumn Man

I am an Autumn Man
just can’t find the strength to face the winter
but summer’s sun’s too fierce a face
for me I find a special grace
in Autumn.

One last defiant shout they raise
these chorused trees. Or perhaps they sway
some swan song dance – this breeze
…so cold. It brings a flush to my cheeks
and I walk with a spring.

Every thing is crisply clear:
Balance on the cusp of Equinox
between the day and night
the sun and ice
death and the life.
You will find Autumn.

… and I see summer fading in your eyes.

Twice twenty twice the world whirls ’round the sun
and pauses
on a razor’s edge
a strange chill in the air.

“Either way is good for me,” you say.
Don’t lie so still.

Let’s prolong the summer
small talk and smile forever
and the days aren’t getting shorter
things will be o…
Or – or I’ll wrap you in snow blankets
soft and smothered, feeling nothing
seeing nothing
saying less.
Mute and forgotten, whited out
except for a voice through the drifting flakes

Reading from Hebrews.
We were caught – you, I, and the faith of Abraham
in a moment between one breath
…and that breath that never came.

Somehow we’re still there.
The hills are ripe with saskatoons.
Ruby juice and woody pulp
wine and bread between my teeth.
I straighten from picking to catch your eye
as it springs to trace the golden fields
that stretch to touch the far horizons.
Up above us Heaven rolls out
scarlet, indigo, violet, saffron,
all the royal colours.
Here within God’s mighty hands
we are the Autumn Men.

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Of Babies, bathwater, and breaking hearths

The November before my mother died she sent out a Christmas letter and hand wrote short notes on accompanying cards.  Morning after morning she sat down at a card table in the living room with carols playing, and persisted. She enlisted the help of her home care aides to address envelopes.

She died on Boxing Day after we lost a last battle to yet another bout of pneumonia.

I spent much of the first two weeks of the new year answering my mother’s Christmas mail. I felt as though one by one I was tying knots in and cutting the cords that bound her to this earth; writing letters to her dear friends, many that I would likely not communicate with again.

I understand something about closure.

I had returned  from Africa to care for her and my father through their last illnesses.  We still make our primary home here.  I moved into her den, and took over her desk, and her filing system: gradually merging what was mine with what was hers.

I understand something about inheritance.

And, I am indeed, meandering toward a point.

Cooking hearth

The Nkonyas have a Custom called “Breaking the Hearth.”  It is  performed perhaps a year after an adult woman dies, after the first painfulness of a death has passed. It is a ceremony both of closure and inheritance. It is also a time when extended family bonds are re-affirmed

It is performed on Odɛ Kulihɛ́, the fifth day of the traditional Nkonya week, a day set aside for honoring the ancestors. At that time the woman’s cooking hearth is broken into twenty-one  pieces and seven mature women make three trips to the dunghill to throw the pieces away. The kitchen and courtyard is also ceremonially swept and the sweepings disposed of.  At this time the woman’s earthly possessions, her cooking dishes, cloths, and beads are displayed and distributed.  Representative women from her family-Oldest aunts and and sisters and cousins receive token dishes, lesser ones a share of her “salt” and “spinning cotton.”  The majority of the inheritance is released to her daughters.

Closure, inheritance, strengthening of extended family ties:  all good and important things, surely.

And yet, I remember hearing Sister Agnes, a leading elder in one small Christian assembly, stand up at a funeral gathering and declare.  “When I die, do not break my hearth!”


A good question to ask when looking at customs is, “What will happen if I don’t perform this?”

And the answer here is.  “If you do not perform this custom and break the hearth, your mother’s ties to her possessions will not be broken and she will not be free to travel to the ancestors.  She will bring sickness and death on the family until it is done and she is freed from her misery.”

If I have become a Christian, and believe that “absent from the body, is present with the Lord,” if I believe that as soon as death occurs I will be in the presence of Jesus and at peace, then I am freed to say, “Don’t break my hearth, let my daughters cook on it.”

The problem for the Christian community is how to achieve closure, strengthen family ties, and pass on an inheritance, and at the same time affirm their freedom in Christ from old fears. How do you keep the baby, and throw out the bathwater?

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. . . . I wanna get off, revisited

One of the things living in Africa has taught me is that, ‘ It is always appropriate to be led.’   I remember once that I wanted to go to a funeral in another Nkonya town to pay respects.  A close family member of the deceased had done a  large favour for my husband, who was away at the time, and I knew that it would be appropriate to express condolences.

However I did not know the people, who were not Nkonyas, nor the house.  I recruited a respectable woman friend to go with me, and when we reached the town she recruited an acquaintance, a man, to lead us to the funeral site, and through the protocol of making a formal visit as a stranger and leaving a funeral donation.

“It’s always appropriate to be led.” I’m pretty much a novice in searching through the internet haystack, but I have principled techie friends who have great needle finding skills. They led me to this find.

Thanks to Andy and friends who located the source of the escape key who stopped the world and got off.  They also found the follow-up, though I understand that the case is still open, and the causes are still being researched.  Andy says,

“I understand that as a result, Ctrl lost it and is now getting soused at the Space Bar.”

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Funeral Cooking-Nkonya style

In Nkonya, Ghana,  it is decidedly less than couth to wander down main street munching peanuts from a roadside stall on the day of a funeral-anybody’s funeral.  Those in mourning, by inclusion, you too, will obviously be too upset to eat.  However, when you consider pragmatics and the obligations of hospitality, it is obvious that relatives and friends attending such an event from a distance must be fed, if discretely in homes.

We are not talking about a lunch of open-faced sandwiches, veggie platters, and baking from the local grocery store, spread out for an hour after the memorial service in the church basement by the ladies’ fellowship.

We’re talking about real food: Fufu, and kenke,  mbɔdɩ, and rice balls. We’re talking about mounds of fried fish, quantities of stew, and vats of palm nut soup, and groundnut soup, and okra soup.  We’re talking about  the logistics of sending the appropriate number of servings  to the umpteen houses where mourners of various status  have been housed, over a period of several days.   We’re talking about amassing sufficient ingredients, and firewood, hauling enough water, having enough serving bowls. And we’re talking about food that is prepared from scratch- from the farm to the table.

Women with gifts of organization and a deft hand with the spices are at a premium. And willing bodies need to be multiple.  Think threshing crews, and barn raisings and then up the number of mouths .

Recently our neighbour’s house was the main venue for the cooking for a large funeral.  And I took pictures of the kind of community endeavor fast vanishing in the West, and perhaps not even quite the same in some Ghanaian urban social strata.

Kenke balls for steaming

Kenke balls for steaming

Pounding palm kernels

Pounding palm kernels

Removing the palm kernel fibre from soup stock

Removing the palm kernel fibre from soup stock



A great story

A great story

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