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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Significance of Anambra bill on control of funeral ceremonies

Commentary@ITRealms:
Presentation by His Lordship Most Rev. Paulinus C. Ezeokafor, the Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, at the Public Hearing on the Bill for a Law to Control Burial/Funeral Ceremonial Activities in Anambra State, at the Conference Room, Anambra State House of Assembly Legislative Complex, Awka, 5 April 2017
Protocols

May the peace of the Lord be with you all.

I am glad to have been appointed by the Chairman of the House Committee on Information, Culture and Tourism as a key resource person on this public hearing on the above-mentioned bill. According to the letter written to me by the Chairman and dated 28 March 2017, I was invited “to speak extensively” on this issue. My special tributes go to the sponsor of the bill Hon. (Engr.) Charles Ezeani. To have come out with this bill shows quality representation of the people. I also thank the members of the House for allowing the bill to reach this stage. If they did not consider it worthwhile, they could have nipped it in the bud the first day it made its appearance at the floor of the House. Thank you very much.

Significance of the Bill
The extravagance displayed by our people during burial and funeral ceremonies in the State has reached such a point that there is need for an effective legislation to control; otherwise, we leave our people in such a pitiable situation and bondage into which they have been trapped. The way our people degenerate from celebration of life to celebration of death is such that, if left uncontrolled and unregulated, we may likely sink into the hypothetical Hobbesian State of Nature, where life would become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Therefore, I consider this bill as unqualifiedly and eternally significant to the citizens of the State and beyond.

I have seen families sell their real Estates, properties, and personal belongings, in order to meet up with the expectations of the society as regards funeral expenses. Businesses have folded up, marriages have broken down, children have been out of school, and sudden deaths have been recorded, simply because people could not reel out of the devastating effects of the huge expenses incurred during the funerals of their loved ones. Families have been put in disarray, community peace has been disrupted, ụmụnna, inyomdi, and ụmụada groups have been engulfed in endless disputes, because of disagreements arising from nonfulfillment of their basic and usually very expensive and unrealistic requirements during funerals. 

As I am speaking to you, I know some families who have been in court for years on account of issues arising from funeral expenses and bills. In one of the cases, the majority of the family presumed the Igbo proverb ojinu kwaa na ọbụrọ diọkpala gburu as their operating principle, only to be surprised after the funerals by the huge bill, running into hundreds of millions of Naira, brought forward by the ojinu in the family, who insisted that it must be shared equally among the brothers. They refused, because they claimed he never consulted them before making the expenses. Then he headed for the court.

We can no longer fold our hands as if nothing is happening. Every hand must be on deck to make sure the bill scales through all the legislative processes as soon as possible. Our people need such a legislation as this, especially at this moment the country is going through one of the toughest times in its history.

Journey so Far in Awka Diocese
Awka Diocese has remained undaunted in its fight to salvage the poor from the stranglehold of this vicious circle of extravagant burial and funeral ceremonies. In 1996, my predecessor of blessed memory Most Rev. Simon A. Okafor issued a guideline entitled Death, Burial, Funeral and Widowhood in the Catholic Diocese of Awka: Guidelines and Directives. He issued this after an extensive study of issues involved by experts in the field. Since then, the diocese have not relented in its effort. I have always seized any available opportunity to speak on the dangers of wasteful burials and funerals among our people. I have insisted that what we should be talking about is how to give our people decent and befitting living and not befitting funerals, by which we mean mindless display of extravagance. 

Last year, I instituted burial and funeral committee on the diocesan level charged with the responsibility of studying the way our people go about burial and funeral ceremonies in the diocese and bringing out recommendations aimed at curbing unnecessary wastes. As the committee was still working, I centred my Lenten Pastoral Letter of 2017 on the same issue. I titled it Our True Home Is in Heaven (Phil 3:20): Befitting Burial and Funeral for the Dead (Hereafter referred to as LP). In the work, I dwelt so much on the theological, pastoral, moral, socio-cultural, psychological, and economic implications of expensive burial and funeral ceremonies. I would not like to burden you with the details of the letter. I have the booklets with me, and will gladly leave some copies with you. In the observations and recommendations that will follow, I will make references to it where necessary.

I am excited to realize that the current draft bill contains most of the issues I handled in the Pastoral Letter and even more.

Observations
Having gone through the bill, I can make the following observations:
The bill is well thought through. It took into consideration the poor masses of the State, whom the house members were elected to defend against all odds. 

It is holistic in its approach, by dealing with all aspects of the burial and funeral ceremonies from the point of death, through registration and preservation of the body, to the burial and termination of the funeral ceremonies.

I am happy that it took care of bodies rejected by family members and those without identifiable families, and the need to create burial grounds in all the Local Governments in the State to have them buried (clause 9). This is very important because burial of the deceased is one of the corporal works of mercy (Tob 1:16-2:6)

The issue of undertakers has been a very worrisome one to the Church. Regulating their activities through the bill is a welcome development (clause 15.1-2). Indeed, the Church has always taught giving due respect to the dead; and the careless tossing of the body during funerals by the undertakers does not do this. I discussed this very well in my Lenten Pastoral (LP nos. 43-46)

In my Lenten Pastoral, I discussed the unwelcome wastage of money and resources through the printing of burial and funeral invitation cards, posters, billboards, etc. I also touched on the issue of preservation of the body for too long in the mortuary, and postponement of burial and funeral proceedings for too long. On this last issue, the diocese has decided not to keep the time between death and funeral beyond two months (see LP nos. 40-42). It is gladdening that the bill is on the same page as we are, by adopting the time lag of not more than two months. Very commendable too is its restriction of the period of funeral to one day (clause 11.1). It will save our people from numerous and unnecessary troubles.

I have already banned the production of brochure in the Catholic Diocese of Awka, with effect from 1 May 2017 (see LP 48-50). The money used for this could be better applied to helping the living. The faithful already know this, and I have received countless phone calls commending the move. The bill also covers this (clause 24), and it is a welcome aspect of the bill that would bring succour to many. 
Wearing of mourning dresses/Asoebi has turned into a practice used for display of wealth and importance. Surely, it is a sign of mourning, but the way it is abused has left much to be desired. I have always discouraged the faithful from this (see LP, no. 52). The bill recognized that it has some significance hence its unwillingness to place a blanket ban on it. Restricting it to family members, church groups, ụmụnna, inyomdi, and ụmụada where applicable has taken care of the unnecessary waste in this wise during funerals (clause 16). 

 I applaud the bill for its restriction of the mourning period to a week. The restriction also took care of the widows in the society (clause 25), who are often the ones who suffer most during the funerals of their deceased husbands, through long periods of restriction of movements and the unchristian so-called state of impurity. In this wise, the bill is deeply biblical, helping to protect the widows in line with the design of God who is the protector of the widow (cf. Psalm 68:5).
 I agree with the bill’s stand on the exposition of preserved corpse (clause 12), stoppage of wake-keeping (clause 10), restriction of some burial customs (clause 20), stoppage of funeral on any local market of a town (clause 19), ban on guns (clause 21), and ban on presentation of food to sympathizers (clauses 17 & 26). 

The Catholic Diocese of Awka has already stopped all manner of food and souvenirs to priests and religious at the funeral of their parents. We wish to extend this to the laity in due course. That is why I am so happy that the house has taken the bull by the horn in this direction in the present draft bill. 
 Any legislation without enforcement cannot survive. The bill took care of this by calling for the establishment of monitoring and implementation committee in every town (clause 27). This will ensure that the good intentions of the bill, when it eventually becomes a law, are not lost.  
 I understand why the bill seeks to make the Church’s funeral proceedings begin not later than 9.00am and not last beyond two hours (clause 11.2). This will help the family and the community to be able to finish all funeral programmes the same day. That is good, but in a country like ours, where one thing or the other could cause a delay in the commencement of the funeral proceedings as stipulated in the bill, like the body not arriving early, does it mean the Church will no longer perform its duties? Or, is there a way through which they could be allowed to do this after obtaining a waiver? 
The bill did its best to handle the issue of okwuozu (clause 22), which entails the official announcement or report to the natal family of a deceased married woman by her husband’s family. The bill tried to reduce the materials required of the husband’s family to fulfil this function, listing the items needed as follows: one she goat, one jar of palm wine, one carton of beer and one crate of mineral. My question is: does this really take care of the poor? Must the announcement or report be accompanied by these items to make it worthwhile? 

Recommendations
Clause 19 which stops burial on a town’s market day needs to be reformulated. Burial can be done if a person dies on the market day, especially if the family does not want to preserve the corpse for a latter day. What the bill should legislate against is not burial but funeral proceedings, which involves a much more elaborate preparations and rituals.
Some towns have more than one market day. The bill should be more specific by stating that this restriction is on the town’s main or major market day.
Clause 18 on the feeding of ụmụnna, inyomdi, and ụmụada by the family “throughout the period of burial/funeral ceremony” seems ambiguous. The bill has stated that the funeral ceremony should not last beyond a day (clause 11). It should be specific that the feeding should be only for the day of the burial/funeral. 
I would wish that registration of funerals in the State not be accompanied by any payment, as it may discourage people from registering. Therefore, clause 4, in my opinion, needs to be revisited.
Since bodies should be buried within two months after death (clause 6), I wonder why the mortuary attendants are “bound to report to the ministry of health” once a body stays in the mortuary for more than one month. I think they should be obliged to report if a body stays beyond two months. 
Blocking of roads for funerals should be accompanied with some payments not just with permission from appropriate local government (clause 7). The payment will reduce the frequency of it, because it causes huge inconveniences to road users. 
The use of material items to announce or report deaths of a deceased married woman to her natal family, in my opinion, should be stopped. I see no reason for pushing bereaved families into such expenses.
The authority accorded the towns’ monitoring committee to give clearance for every burial (clause 30.1.a) must be well regulated; otherwise, they will utilize it for witch haunting. There have been cases where such people constituted obstacles to Christian funerals, simply because the deceased or his/her relatives refused to abide by fetish and unchristian demands from them that were very injurious to their faith.

Conclusion
I thank you very much for this opportunity and the audience given to me. I trust the ability of the members of the House of Assembly to make this bill see the light of the day as a memorable and life-uplifting law for our people. The inputs from the public will definitely enhance its quality. My earnest prayer is that it scales through the remaining legislative stages successfully, for the good of the citizens of our dear State.

Once more, thank you. Remain blessed.

†Paulinus C. Ezeokafor, Bishop of Awka
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