Money and Death: Funeral Business in Asante, Ghana

By de Witte, Marleen | Africa, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Money and Death: Funeral Business in Asante, Ghana


de Witte, Marleen, Africa


ABSTRACT

This article examines the current commercialisation and expansion of Asante funeral celebrations in Ghana. Funerals have always been the main public social events in Asante, but the growing funeral business significantly alters the way death is celebrated. The article takes as a point of departure a view of death as a field of strategic interaction, providing the ritual context for the creation of remembrance and identities, the elaboration of differences, the competition for status and power, and the negotiation of culture and social bonds and values. Within the framing narrative of respect for the dead and guiding the spirit to the next world, funerals are much about life. The article describes how, in shaping death, people deal with money to negotiate values of life and relations between the living, and shows that, contrary to both popular belief and critique on global commercialisation, in Asante the money economy and the social significance of the funeral tradition do not contravene, but rather reinforce each other. The funeral celebration is not wiped away by monetisation, nor is it a kind of last defence against it. Indeed, it is exactly through money and commodification that funeral celebrations are expanding, social ties forged, and cultural performances stimulated, albeit in new ways. In Asante funerals, people appropriate practices of consumption and commercial enterprise as well as indigenous traditions and exchange patterns in a process of 'cultural bricolage', and develop new, local styles of celebrating death, in which money has come to play a central role as social glue and as an expression of lifestyles, cultural values and ideals. It is argued that we cannot understand 'traditional ritual' unless we move beyond the rather rigid opposition between tradition and modernity still prevalent in ritual studies to acknowledge the open, flexible nature of tradition that makes it so vibrant in modern African life.

MONEY AND THE CELEBRATION OF DEATH IN GHANA

In Ghana money and death are inextricably interwoven. Every death triggers a flow of money and the funeral business flourishes. The elaborate funeral celebrations during which no trouble or expense is spared contrast sharply with the daily struggle for the primary necessities of life. They are great 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 millions of cedis (1) are spent in organising an event, which impresses everybody. A funeral, more than a wedding or any other ceremony, should be grand and successful.

Every Saturday is funeral day. In every mid-sized town there are two or more funerals. Hundreds of people come together to pay their last respects to a deceased loved one, or to sympathise with a bereaved friend. People dress up and travel to visit a funeral in another town or village. In turn, they expect the bereaved family to entertain them with show, music, dance, drinks, and sometimes food. In the evening it can be hard to find transport back to town, when trotros (minibuses for public transport) are stuffed with funeral guests going home. And every Saturday night people dressed in black and red funeral cloth flock together in Hotel de Kingsway to end the day's funeral by dancing to the tunes of highlife music. Funerals are at the heart of Asante culture and social life. Asante funerals are also the terrain of great creativity, where various forms of expression and art come together. Cultural groups perform traditional drumming or songs; people show their dancing skills; highlife musicians compose popular songs on the deep sorrow caused by death; pieces of poetic oratory praise the life of the deceased; portrait paintings and sculptures are put on the grave; photographs are enlarged, framed and exhibited or printed on T-shirts; video shots are taken and edited into a beautiful document; people dress up in the latest funeral fashion; and sometimes scenes from the life of the deceased are acted out in theatre. …

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