Between Death and Funeral: Mortuaries and the Exploitation of Liminality in Kwahu, Ghana

By van der Geest, Sjaak | Africa, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Between Death and Funeral: Mortuaries and the Exploitation of Liminality in Kwahu, Ghana


van der Geest, Sjaak, Africa


ABSTRACT

This essay describes (1) how mortuaries changed the Akan funeral culture of Ghana and (2) how that converged with the interests of relatives and hospital managers. Such a development would not have been possible, however, (3) without the money provided by well-to-do relatives staying abroad. Mortuaries enable relatives to stretch the liminal period between death and funeral as long as they want to while they prepare everything for a grand funeral. For hospitals, this new fashion means an attractive extra source of income, as the mortuary is more lucrative than its medical services. My observations derive from anthropological fieldwork in Kwahu, Ghana.

RESUME

Cet essai decrit (1) comment les morgues ont change la culture funeraire akan au Ghana et (2) comment cette evolution a converge avec les interets des familles et des directeurs d'hopitaux. Une telle evolution n'aurait cependant pas ete possible (3) sans l'argent fourni par les membres aises de la famille residant a l'etranger. Les morgues permettent aux familles d'etendre la periode liminale entre le deces et les obseques le temps necessaire pour preparer des obseques grandioses. Pour les hopitaux, cette nouvelle mode est synonyme de source appreciable de revenus supplementaires, la morgue etant plus lucrative que les services medicaux. L'article tire ses observations de travaux de recherche menes d Kwahu (Ghana).

The mortuary has changed the landscape of death and funerals in Ghana. When I began my research in Kwahu in 1969, mortuaries hardly existed. People did their utmost to prevent their relatives from dying in a hospital, for two good reasons. First, it was better to die at home in the company of dear ones than in the inhospitable space of a hospital surrounded by strangers (cf. van der Geest 2004). Second, transporting a dead body was a costly undertaking, so relatives rushed to bring the dying person home before he gasped his last. After his death at home, the person would be buried the next day. Seven days later, there would be a second funeral, attended by those who could not make it on the day of the burial because they were living a distance away. (1)

The situation has changed completely. Today, relatives prefer to have a grand funeral with the dead body in their midst. The mortuary or 'fridge' makes this possible. Instead of rushing to get a dying patient out of the hospital, relatives now hurry to move him in the opposite direction. Patients who die in a hospital have easier access to its mortuary and pay less. Relatives, therefore try to get their dying parents admitted to the hospital before they expire to spare the costs of transporting the deceased body and to benefit from the reduced mortuary prices for ward patients.

In this essay I describe (1) how a technical apparatus revolutionized the Akan funeral culture and (2) how that development dovetailed with the interests of relatives and hospital managers. I will further argue (3) that this development would not have been possible without the money provided by well-to-do relatives staying abroad. In an overview of anthropological studies about the end of life, Kaufman and Morgan (2005: 326) complain about the dearth of ethnographic work on the commercialisation of death. This essay is about death as business.

The observations are part of anthropological fieldwork about meanings of growing old in a rural town of the Kwahu area, about 150 km north of the capital, Accra. That fieldwork started among living older people and ended in the mortuaries of three local hospitals.

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE OF THE FUNERAL

When I compare my own observations from 1969-1973 in Kwahu to those of today I am struck by several changes in the management of death and funeral. In 1969 there was fasting during funerals and many women of the abusua (family) of the deceased had their heads shaven. The elders played a main role during the rituals: they had their traditional drumming and reigned on the dance floor. …

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