Befitting treatment, not befitting burial

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By Akintayo Abodunrin, Obinna Emelike and Seyi John Salau

Nigerians love celebrations, especially burials. We spare no expense on what we call a ‘befitting burial’. Though the children of the deceased might be hand-in-glove with poverty, they do not mind borrowing heavily to give their departed father or mother a befitting burial.
One has heard stories of people who borrowed to bury aged parents that they never cared for in their old age. Some older people suffered, but the children were far away, leaving their sick and senior parents to the benevolence of the community, only to turn up for befitting burials after they passed.
Some say befitting burial is only ego-tripping and a waste of hard-earned money on the part of the bereaved. The dead are gone and unaware of befitting burials. They won’t share in the merrymaking, so why use them as an excuse to party? It is we, the living that are grandstanding.
There is an anecdote about the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, explaining why he refused to spend lavishly on burying his mother several years ago. Asked why he opted for a low-key burial, he was said to have retorted, “I can’t lose my mother and lose my money”.
Well, nobody is contending that people who have the resources and who took care of their parents should not organize decent burials with a lot to drink and food to eat. It is those who hold loud, ostentatious burials for parents they never cared for in old age, who are being called out because care for elders in their lifetime is crucial. It is a duty expected of all children and state institutions. However, the number of well-run and adequately funded care homes for elders in the country is very few. One doesn’t need the gold in Fort Knox to ensure that one’s aged parents live decent and respectable lives. Even the government, especially states and local councils, must prioritise this. Sadly, this is one area we only regard with slight aparty in Nigeria. Many people are apathetic to elder care but won’t mind becoming heavily indebted to hold befitting burials.
In this light, one particularly applauds the O.B. Lulu-Briggs Foundation, a leading non-partisan not-for-profit organization based in Rivers State and its focus on elderly care through its Care for Life Program. Through the initiative established 22 years ago, the Foundation chaired by frontline industrialist and philanthropist Dr Seinye O.B. Lulu-Briggs, has extended comprehensive support, including healthcare, monthly sustenance, housing, and spiritual care to over 600 elders across 12 Local Government Areas in Rivers State.
Apart from taking care of senior citizens’ spiritual and material needs, the O.B. Lulu-Briggs Foundation also organizes parties, including Valentine’s Day and a New Year event that commences its activities annually. Further demonstrating the Foundation’s concern for senior citizens is its purpose-built Biokpo Recreational Centre for the Elderly. It opened in 2007 for lonely and isolated elders to mingle, socialise and receive spiritual guidance, meals, and medical attention. Though it was closed in 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now open.
Commendably, the O.B. Lulu-Briggs Foundation has always respected its duty of care to the senior citizens, ensuring all their needs are met and constantly celebrated. It was a most delightful sight on January 1, 2024, to see senior citizens dancing to the melodious music from Afy Douglas, the choir from the Chapel of God International, Port Harcourt (which Dr Lulu-Briggs pastors) and children from Saint Augustine’s, a primary school adopted by the Foundation.
The senior citizens enjoyed the event, a vibrant mix of praise, worship, and dance. But even this was not the icing on the cake. This came when Dr Lulu-Briggs announced the institution of an annual N250, 000 congratulatory Award for elders turning nonagenarians (aged between 90 and 99) under the Foundation’s care. The joyous peals of laughter that rang out were heartwarming.
With Christ as her cornerstone, Dr Lulu-Briggs didn’t forget to pray for the elders, saying, “May you continue to walk in faith, guided by God’s love and inspired by His word.”
Now, this is as it should be.
Our senior citizens should be celebrated in their lifetimes, and we should generously care for them just like the Foundation does. It doesn’t make sense to abandon one’s aged parents only to turn around to roll out the drums for their burial. There is no justification for that. Even as the economic pinch continues, care for elders is sine qua non. The Good Book admonishes us to respect our parents, and caring for them in their old age comes under this. It is time we eschew ‘befitting burials’ for quality, comprehensive elderly care corporately and individually.
Death is as costly as living in African most populous country, Obinna Emelike and Seyi John Salau concur. They are quick to point out a middle-aged civil servant who, on hearing that his father had been admitted in a hospital for the second time in six months due to his deteriorating health, became adamant on sending him money for treatment. The 75-year-old man eventually died. The medical consultant that treated him explained that if the diseased family had sent money on time, the man would have survived. But the doctor was furious when he was told how the children of the deceased turned his burial into a carnival of sorts, spending millions on an expensive casket, food, drinks, souvenirs, hiring undertakers among others to ensure that the burial was the talk of the town for a long time.
It is ironic that in almost every part of the country, many Nigerians prefer spending millions of naira on the burial of their ‘loved ones’ to spending thousands in curing their sicknesses. The trend has been sustained over the years, despite the huge financial burden it places on the bereaved, with many selling the deceased properties or their own to raise money, and in some cases, even borrowing. Therefore, dying is not cheap in Nigeria as burying the dead has become costlier than keeping the person alive while sick.
According to a recent survey conducted by BusinessDay newspaper of Nigeria, generally, it is cheaper to bury the dead in the northern part of the country than in the southern part. The least with burial burden is the North West and North East, with North Central trailing behind. On the contrary, in most Southern parts of Nigeria, the success of a burial is determined by the amount spent. In that regard, the South West and South East spend a lot on burial, while South-South spends the highest.

According to Ebitimi Abua, an engineer with the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the high cost of burial in most parts of Nigeria is influenced by cultural beliefs, status symbols and decadence in society. He decried the fact that burial cost was very high in the South-South, especially in riverside areas for many reasons. “We value our dead, we also believe that the dead should not be treated badly, rather accord them respect, and you cannot do all these when the burial is not colourful enough,” he said.
He decried the fact that most families normally thought it would be shameful to bury their dead immediately or without elaborate celebration, bearing in mind what people were likely to say. “I am from Kaiama in Bayelsa State and I am Ijaw. People don’t bother themselves with the news of someone’s death, but how to give the person a befitting burial, especially if he or she is elderly. For a start, the corpse would stay in the mortuary for months and some over a year, not just to allow for planning or to raise money, but also to boast that the corpse stayed longer in the morgue. The lengthier time in the mortuary indicated that the burial would be glamorous. That is what many believe,” he said.
But Tubokebima Timiebi, a senior lecturer at University of Port Harcourt, noted that the lengthy time a corpse stayed in the morgue was not necessarily to buy time for burial planning, but was cultural in some cases, especially if it was a notable person that died. “There are some cultural rites you need to perform before the burial. They take time and also cost a lot of money. Most cultures in the South-South believe that when a wealthy man or king dies, you cannot bury him like a commoner. So, there is so much to spend on, before and during the burial, which is cultural,” he explained.
With the current economic realities, the lecturer noted that there is no average burial again as the bereaved is expected to perform all the burial rites.
“Nowadays, people budget from N5 million upwards for burial and will borrow to ensure the burial is a success. I have heard some of my friends boast that they spent N10 to N15 million to bury their deceased. But this is part of the reason crime is increasing because society wants you to bury your dead like a king, whether you have the means or not. It is a big issue in my area,” he confirmed.
In the Eastern part of the country, it is quite expensive to bury the dead due to some cultural demands, the economy and most times, self-inflicted burdens.
Okedinachi Elekwa, a lawyer, who buried his father in November last year at Umunneochi, in Abia State, lamented that together with his siblings, they spent over N8million. “I was confused when our elder brother brought the list: goats, cows, drinks, food, security, and many other items and many groups that must be entertained. I asked how much the kinsmen or the groups are contributing, they said it is our sole responsibility, and after all, that we are rich. When I argued, my kinsmen said it is traditional rites and must be done because our father benefitted from other people’s burial while alive. I imagine the stress the poor go through to bury their dead. It is sad and the cost is increasing as the economy bites harder,” the aggrieved lawyer said.
But Hyacinth Unaka, a clergy, noted that the church, especially Catholic Church, always intervened in the high cost of burial, especially with its insistence that once a person dies, the burial should be within a month else the church will not attend the burial. The church also urged the bereaved to skip wake-keeping and other activities to save cost.
The ambulance services also have a union as well as casket makers. As the prices of wood for making caskets, fuel and motor spare parts go up and owners of ambulances increase daily returns, the cost is being pushed to the bereaved as well. Again, funeral homes are booming alongside funeral undertakers, which are not cheap, but add glamour to a burial. Some charge to handle the mortuary, ambulance, hiring expensive cars for convoy and undertakers for colourful casket display. These services run into millions depending on the funeral home, who died and where the burial would hold.
However, most bereaved families do not seem to mind the cost, as long as people can attest that their dead were given befitting burials. Yet, if the dead had the opportunity to speak, they would probably question why the people were throwing lavish funeral parties when little money and care would have kept them alive.
For many family members, the economic burden and trauma that come with every burial activity is better imagined than experienced. “It’s never easy to bury a loved one, especially if the person died after a protracted illness,” Adeyemi Oluseyi, who buried his father, recently, told journalists.

Oluseyi disclosed that the immediate family didn’t feel the weight of the economic impact of the burial because the extended family members would normally rally round the chief mourner to support economically. “As a Yoruba man, we that were members of his immediate family didn’t feel the economic pain that much because his family contributed some of the money needed and also decided to carry some of the burden.”
According to him, individual differences also have a role to play in the final analysis on how burials are conducted. He said that while some family may decide to be on the high, some could decide to be moderate in their expenses.
“In my own case, our father had been sick for some months before he finally lost the battle against prostate cancer. So, by the time he died we felt some level of relief because we didn’t disclose his illness to the family. I also think that influenced our decision to conduct the burial two weeks after he died because we felt there was no need to prolong the issues surrounding his burial. So, it was easy to come up with a date when the family and the church requested for a date from us,” Oluseyi said.
According to Oluseyi, when life comes to an end, the only thing left is to bury the dead. However, Africans engage in various strange practices in the name of culture and religion suggesting that the living care more for the dead than the living.
Speaking further from an Islamic perspective, Oluseyi said activities and burial rights for the dead vary on issues relating to the celebration of life for the dead. “Ideally it is those that come to greet that should provide food for the bereaved. Only prayer for the dead at three days that is ideal; however different sects or people do what they feel,” he said.
According to him, the amount of money spent for burial ceremonies could have been spent to care for the deceased. That could have helped in keeping them alive. But, in some cases we prefer to keep the corpse in the morgue sometimes in show of wealth, and other times for lack of agreement between family members. “I know a certain family that abandoned their father for years to the point that people around thought he had no family member around in Lagos.
“A total stranger nickname ‘Boxer’ was the one who looked after the old man. They both lived in an uncompleted building till the man died. However, his children surfaced from nowhere to claim the land and even forced Boxer to move out. What if he didn’t stay with the old man?
The lesson we learn here is that Nigerians should begin to spend more money on the medication of their loved ones that spend millions to give them fitting burials.

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