The “Fool-Fashion” Continues: Extravagant Funerals in Calabar, Southern Nigeria
On arrival in Calabar in 1846, the pioneer missionaries were intrigued by the indigenous phenomenon of elaborate and expensive funerals for the deceased, including those who had lived and died in penury. The missionaries embarked on a campaign against the practice, making the natives see the unreasonability of saving as well as borrowing for funerals rather than contributing to the wellbeing of people when they are alive. The few locals that the missionaries were able to convince joined them in the campaign. One of the new converts described extravagant funerals, especially those that led to heavy debts or the selling of relatives to acquire the resources needed for the burial of any of their departed members as “Fool-Fashion.” Almost two centuries after, nothing has changed; funerals are still by far the biggest rite of passage event in Calabar. People still incur heavy debts to give their departed ones what they consider “befitting burials.” Scholars who have examined funeral practices in Calabar attribute expensive funerals to “recent developments brought about by foreign influences and improvements in the economic fortunes of the people.” Using the methods and techniques of the historian, this paper aims at correcting this erroneous impression by demonstrating that the practice had been ingrained in the sociological and philosophical episteme of the people from the pre-colonial period when the so-called foreign influences were non-existent. In any case, one cannot make an exceptional claim for Calabar; many of the arguments presented in this paper are applicable to many other communities and towns in southern Nigeria, with Calabar serving as a test case to shed light on a larger trend. The paper recommends that more attention should be given to a person in life than to death. More so, the paper recommends that studies on African cultural practices should go beyond shallow assumptions to a more deeply searching investigation on the collective mind/rituals of the people. The paper is, therefore, against romantic Africa centred scholarship and pedestrian anti-westernism. The study will depend heavily on primary materials to be sourced from the archives and fieldwork in Calabar.
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