Sunday Magazine

Why there‘re no public cemeteries in Igboland

Birth, death marriage and even how and where the dead are buried are said to be part of cultures of a people. In Igboland it is a taboo to be buried in a public cemetery, writes STEVE UZOECHI, with additional reports from Emmanuel Ifeanyi, Okey Maduforo and Igbeaku Orji

 

The Igbos are a people of culture and tradition. They are so attached to their ways of life that they carry their culture and traditions around like hand bag wherever they go. They teach their children their language, cuisine and other aspects of their tradition. They hold the memory of their loved ones in high esteem, hence the importance they attach to how and where their dead are buried.

To them, it is befitting to bury the dead in their homestead in the midst of their kith and kin. Hence, most communities in Igboland have no public cemeteries. “In those days, it was a taboo to bury your dead relatives in the cemetery.

 

Then, people who committed sacrilege were thrown into the evil forest so that they would not reincarnate and come back to the world,” Pa Johnson Nzurumike, 79 years old recalled. He gave the background of how cemetery came into the land. “The white man came for evangelism and brought in the concept of having portions of land for the burial of dead priests and church leaders and our people borrowed it. “Ndigbo always bury their relatives at home so that they can reincarnate into any of the homes of their children.

 

The presence of the grave in the compound is believed to be a kind of spiritual protection from external spiritual attacks as the spirits of the dead relatives fight for the homestead. “Since the departure of the church missionaries, the cemeteries are fast disappearing and people have returned to the usual traditional way of burying their loved ones at home.”

 

A public commentator, Sam Egesi, toes the same line when he stated that culturally, the Igbo people of South-Eastern Nigeria were never given to burying their dead in public cemeteries. He said: “Igbo people were not culturally used to burying their dead in a cemetery. In fact, it’s a taboo to be buried outside your homestead among your kith and kin.

 

“Those cemeteries are always owned by the churches to bury their priests and strangers working among them and some abominable people in the land. No average Igbo man desires to be buried in a cemetery.”

Francis Ugo, a technocrat living in the Diaspora, corroborated Egesi’s stance that it is not the culture of the Igbo man to be buried in a cemetery, adding that any Igbo man buried in a cemetery is considered either an outcast or a priest.

 

“Two external burial grounds in the old were the Ajo ofia or Ajo agu. (Evil forest) for the ones that are outcasts. Another one is the church cemeteries which is more recent. This is where the priests and sometimes outcasts are buried. “The Igbo cosmology frowns strongly at burial outside the homestead”, Ugo said. A former House of Representatives aspirant,

Hon. Chidi Nwuke, offered a historical perspective to the discourse when he traced the origin of public cemeteries to the colonialists. He said: “The church and colonialists introduced public cemetery system in Igboland. Post independence, the local administrators did not continue the practice. Gradually, we went back to the established culture of burying in the homestead or ‘Ala Obi’ of the male members of the family.

 

“What actually changed radically was the burial of women. Initially, under Igbo culture, women are at death, taken back to their paternal homes for burial. This culture has been almost eradicated in all Igbo towns. Now women are buried in their husband’s homes. I believe that the old Igbo culture on burial of married women was nearer to the marital vow “till death do us part”.

 

Marriage was seen as a lifetime engagement. At death, the contract is terminated and the woman’s body is returned to her kith and kin for burial. But, like all aspects of culture, the dynamics of Christianity anchored on western culture has changed this.”

Ozo Nkemdilim Nwokoye from Nawfia Community, Njikoka Local Government Area, Anambra State, recalled that the current Ekeh Awka Main Market used to be a cemetery before the Nigerian Civil War and after the war, it was converted to a market.

“There was nothing like Ekeh Awka Main Market. It was a cemetery before now and when the war ended, it became a market. The only market then was Amaenyi Market located at the Imo Awka deity shrine.

“Even most cemeteries do not have space any longer and some are now motor parks and playgrounds and nobody goes to the cemetery to bury their relatives,” he said. Burying the dead is one thing the Igbo people value so much.

That is why ‘befitting burial’ is a common word in Igboland and people from Igbo ethnic group do not joke with the dead bodies of their loved ones. The word cemetery is taken from the Greek word Koimeterion, which is the word for ‘sleeping place’.

 

It is a place where people are buried, but in Igbo-land, cemeteries are not seen as very important for cultural and traditional reasons. In Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State, the concept of public cemetery is not popular, as where many residents knew as Cemetery has been turned into a market, making it a part of the Eziukwu Market in Aba South Local Government Area.

When market and development took over the old cemetery, which also took over the name of the Eziukwu Market that is popularly now called Cemetery Market, a certain location between Ngwa Road and Ogbor-Hill axis of the city was mapped out as the new public cemetery. But then in Igboland, the honourable final resting place for an Igbo man is his ancestral home.

 

For every married Igbo woman, her honourable final resting place is her husband’s home. So, most times, making use of the public cemetery is not about its availability. Chief Cletus Izunta said that Ndigbo have this belief in life after death; and it is a feature of Igbo religious belief system that full burial rites are accorded the dead, in order to prevent the disturbances from the dead.

 

“How can you give a man full burial rites in Igboland and end up burying him in a strange land? I’m not against the issue of cemeteries, but I will never be happy if my own children watch me buried there.

 

“It’s an alien culture and it came with the whites. In my own culture as an Igboman, any man buried outside his compound or any portion of land belonging to him or his family must be an evil man whom the community would not want any association with in the life after death.

 

“No one wants such people to reincarnate into their families because believe it or not, Ndigbo generally see reincarnation as real. Many can claim they don’t believe it, but I’m sure the evidences of such beliefs are in some of the names we answer. “When you call your son names like Nnamdi (my father is alive), Nnedi (Mother is alive) and so many more other names like that, it means we believe in reincarnation. “So, cemetery is not bad, but burying someone in a land with headstones all over is not an Igbo culture and will never be.

 

“As for the church, it’s only the Anglican Church that I know has cemeteries, but I doubt I they still bury people there. I remember when I was younger, they were burying people there. I have heard about Deacons who were taken home to be buried.”

 

Mrs. Maureen Okeke said that the presence of public cemeteries does not have anything to do with how the Igbos bury their loved ones. “I had an uncle who died in London.

 

His corpse was brought down to Lagos, from Lagos down to Onitsha before moving down to my village in Ogidi, Idemili North Local Government Area of, Anambra State. “Does it mean there are no cemeteries in London, Lagos and Onitsha that he could have been buried in? The issue is mainly about culture and tradition.

“Most persons you see being buried in public cemeteries in Igboland are either destitute, or people whose identities cannot be ascertained. “May be nobody came around to identify such corpses. Honestly, our people are not used to this cemetery issue because it’s not a part of us.”

 

When contacted, Mrs. Onyinyechi Nwaigwe, Director of Environmental Health in Aba South Local Government told Sunday Telegraph that the commercial city of Aba has a well organised public cemetery for those who care to make use of it. “We have a public cemetery located off Ngwa road by Orji Uzor Kalu Bridge.

 

When people want to make use of it, they come to get approval from us. “Some people, when the distance is much and they don’t want to carry the bodies of their loved ones far away, they come to us to get approval to make use of the Aba Cemetery.

 

We have a functional cemetery demarcated into two according to religion. “One for Muslims and one for Christians. Although there are some internal challenges around there that are being handled, the reality is that Aba Cemetery is functional for those who wish to make use of it.”

 

Surprisingly, Umuahia, the Abia State capital, does not have such facility. The area designated as such, as in Aba, has been encroached upon and converted to other uses. Apart from some of the old churches with vast premises, there is no public cemetery.

 

The result is that some corpses have been abandoned in mortuaries. In Umuahia, the ground opposite the Golden Guinea Breweries was said to be a cemetery. But it has been converted to business and residential area.

 

According to a resident of Umuahia, Mr. Mark Odingwangwa, the reason is not farfetched. “Umuahia has remained a provincial capital several years after becoming a state capital. The city does not have the cosmopolitan status with people of divers backgrounds and nationalities.

 

“Most of the people here are mostly from neighbouring states who can easily take bodies of their loved ones home for burial.

 

“The other reason we don’t have cemeteries here and there’s no pressure on the authorities to create one is because the people from this part of the country want their dead properly buried. It has social and religious implications.”

 

He observed that the people place high value on how and where one is buried. “That is why they fight over land because no one will concede a portion where their forebears were buried. It also helps to settle land disputes.

 

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