Abusua do funu – The family loves the corpse

Charles Cowling


Mr Mensah a retired head teacher in Kwahu-Tafo, died in 1995 in Accra, where he was receiving medical treatment. His body was deposited in a mortuary for about a month. During that period, his children organized a full facelift of the house to prepare it for a worthy funeral: the roof and other parts of the house were repaired, the large courtyard was cemented, the house was painted, electricity was brought to the house and the road leading to the house was improved. Many of the things the old man had wanted to do during his life were done for him after his life, while his body was waiting in limbo. His children, one of whom lived in the USA, took care of the (re)construction work.

This is how they do it in Ghana, a country whose funeral rituals are little known beyond those groovy coffins we all love. Let’s not overlook the fact that Ghana incorporates many peoples and religions, each of which does its own thing. The Ghanaian funeral that we all know a little about is the Akan funeral.

The structure of Akan society is matrilinear. Akans place low value on marriage, so weddings are no big deal. Throughout their lives Akans cleave, not unto their spouse, but unto  the abusua, the matrilineal family. Akans divorce freely and easily. A woman will often walk away from her marriage once she’s had children. A man is expected to favour his sister’s children over his own. This has an effect on the way old people are looked after. You look less to your children, more to your abusua, to look after you when you get shaky. [Source]

If Akans don’t do weddings, boy do they do funerals. A funeral is a time for the abusua to celebrate itself publicly and assert its status. It is a social event. Much loved family members are given wonderful send-offs. So too are undeserving family members who may have been despised. Come one, come all. And a notable peculiarity of some of these lavish funerals is that they afford the deceased a lot more care when they’re dead than when they were alive and most in need of it. Some small social stigma attaches to those who don’t look after ailing family members, but no abusua could ever live down the disgrace of failing to give them a proper funeral. This stimulates lifelong funeral-going. In order to ensure the attendance and donations of others at your funeral you must have first attended and donated to as many of theirs as you could — every Saturday for many Ghanaians. If you don’t go to theirs, they won’t come to yours. 

Eighty per cent of Ghanaians live on around $2 a day. A funeral costs an average $2,500–£3,000. 

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. Death, more than any other life event, seems to inspire people to artistic creations.

One could expect a traditional ritual, centred around the extended family and around beliefs about death and ancestorship, to reduce in importance under the influence of individualisation, urbanisation, the market economy, and Christianity. The opposite scenario is taking place in Ghana. Funerals are, more than any other ceremony, increasingly gaining in scale and importance. [Source]

One technological innovation above all others is responsible for this. The refrigerated mortuary. The longer a corpse remains in the morgue, the more prestige is attached to the funeral. This is not only because a longer period allows the family to make more preparations for a successful funeral; the mere duration of the corpse’s stay in the mortuary commands respect. People know the high prices of mortuaries and can estimate the amount of money the family spent.

The mortuary also gives the abusua  more time to get the money together for something really spectacular. Only a few selected people are able to see the dead body during its stay in the mortuary. It is ‘nowhere’ for some time. The person has died, but not yet socially. Almost secretly his body has been transferred to a technological limbo, where it waits its ‘rise’ to death, the social recognition of having died … The quality of the corpse constitutes an important element in the success of the funeral … after its reappearance from the morgue, the corpse is dressed, decorated, perfumed and laid out to be admired by large crowds of mourners. It will be filmed, if the family’s finances permit, and the camera will zoom in, revealing the smallest details of the dead face. It is no wonder that relatives do their utmost to assure that their corpses are well maintained, and tip the attendants at the mortuary for that purpose. In the brilliant Vimeo film below you can see that freezing the corpse makes it possible to stand it up at the wake. Please watch it.  

The upshot is that a hospital mortuary can become a major generator of income. In Nkawkaw the private Agyarkwa hospital accommodates 20 patients. Its mortuary hosts 60 corpses waiting for their funeral.

Some Ghanaians would like to reverse the trend towards ever more elaborate funerals, regarding them as a social problem and a bar to economic progress: 

One of the most serious attitudinal problems to have crept into the Ghanaian society is the insatiable desire to invest in the dead rather than the living. We go to bizarre extents to try to outdo each other in the grandeur of the funerals we organise. We take to task our compatriots who for better sanity or lack of resources try to organise relatively modest funerals, describing their efforts as “burying their loved ones like fowls”! … How can a people that hope to develop their impoverished nation become so obsessed with investment in the dead rather than the living? [Source]

In Britain we don’t have this problem. Our problem is too little, not too much.




More reading here, here, here, here and here.


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Jon Underwood
9 years ago

Wow, that’s amazing stuff. I found the video electrifying. Funerals tell you so much about a society, don’t they.

Jeremy Brooks
Jeremy Brooks
9 years ago

REally fascinating article Charles – thanks for posting it. Reminds me of some of the weddings I officiate at here! Isn’t it interesting that we aren’t interested in making a deal about death but go absolutely crazy in spending money on a wedding, whilst they do it the opposite way round. Who’s to say one is a better way than the other?