Habeas corpse

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Funeral arrangements for many Brits must take into account the sometimes violently conflicting wishes, needs and loyalties of the various members of blended families. Compromise can sometimes be hard to reach, the more so when one party sets out to hijack the funeral and do it their way.

It’s worse for Ghanaians. There, it’s the extended family that often hijacks the funeral. Journalist Elizabeth Ohene explains:

A friend of mine has had a traumatic experience and this has brought the subject of death forcibly to the fore for me.

When a Ghanaian dies, the body belongs to the family – that is the legal position.

The definition of family, in this case, does not include a spouse or children.

So, do not go looking in the dictionary, where a family is defined as “a group of people who are related to each other, especially a mother, a father and children”.

In matters of death in Ghana, a family refers to the extended family into which you are born – no matter how long ago and it does not include the family you have created.

So, you could be married for 50 years and the two of you might discuss what arrangements you want for your funerals when the time comes.

You might even write down these wishes but, unfortunately, when your wife dies, you will discover that 50 years of marriage counts for nothing.

Once your wife becomes a corpse, you have no say in where or even when she will be buried. If her family decides, for example, to take her body to the village she had never sat foot in, you will be able to do very little about it.
Wrath of in-laws

And if you think you are a beloved child and your parents have told you how they want their funerals conducted, you will discover that your word counts for nothing – unless, of course, you can find some people to intercede on your behalf and you can “buy” the funeral from the family.

The process of “buying” the rights to the funeral includes giving drinks and the paying of various fines for imaginary wrongdoings over your lifetime.

Custom demands that children bury their parent – in other words, they must pay the bills for the funeral but they have no authority over the body.

If your spouse dies and you happen to be not very popular with your in-laws, then better get resigned to the fact that while you mourn the loss of your partner, you will be accused of having killed him or her.

I have seen it and it is not a pleasant experience.

My friend’s husband died. Their children wanted their father buried after three weeks, but his family wanted his body kept for four months to enable relatives scattered around the four corners of the globe to attend the funeral.

We coaxed, we begged, we paid fines for all the years the children had not been to the village, but all to no avail – the body belongs to the family and they took it away.

This is an everyday occurrence in Ghana and if you think you can avoid it, let me tell you the story of a former chief justice who left strict instructions about what should happen when he dies.

He wanted to be buried within two weeks of his death and he did not want a state funeral.

Three weeks after he died, his family came to formally announce his death to the president and then added most helpfully that they had prayed and set aside the man’s wishes and the president should feel free to accord a state funeral.

The man got a state funeral some six weeks after his death.

If that can happen to a chief justice, it is obvious there is no point in me leaving any instructions, but just in case anybody cares, I want to be cremated within a week.

Not that I plan on going any time soon.



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