(On Esan Burial Tradition)
GUARDIAN, November 8, 2005
Your mother was no egbakhman because she had a
grown child like you. This is notwithstanding that Esan cultural norms frown at
a child that predeceased her own parents. The culture that gave you birth is
dialectic; it imposes duty on both parents and offspring. While parents owe a
sacred duty to nurture children to adulthood, it is the corresponding obligation
of adult children to stay alive to celebrate their parents and conduct them
through the lonely path home.
That was the hint inherent in the wish of your mother's'to be celebrated at
death, as was her grandmother. In a word, your mother was interested in the
cultural honours due to a deserving personage. The snag highlighted that an
adult child that predeceased parents may be treated like a stillborn, has a few
exceptions. Rare as they are, exemptions are granted if there were reasonable
and extenuating circumstances in the manner of departure. Your mother, Stella
Obhayelea's illustrious life, fit into this milieu. So, young man, I write to
offer you condolences, clarify some issues of cultural significance and,
perhaps, offer a guide out of the seeming impasse.
The most outstanding of the spats that many latched unto was the act of
committal of her remains to earth in a foreign land. Some of the arguments were
founded on cultural injunctions. Such was the strand that insisted, for
instance, that the only right thing to do was to bring her remains home. Given
the fait accompli of her rest in Abeokuta, however, I take it that the oversight
was because no rational advice was proffered. Perhaps, credible opinions were
not sought from the right sources. Alternatively, if any was vouched at all, it
was mistaken and perhaps, from informants not familiar with the cultural
demands. That explains the absence of prudence in managing the apparent cultural
Esan culture has in-built flexibilities. Like every culture, Esan's is
dynamic and admits refinement. The point in issue is not unprecedented, the full
panoply of requirements are not unknown. For the purpose of this discourse, the
culture requires the eldest male child, accompanied by his siblings to lead his
mother home, celebrate her life and do her deserved honour. There is no
exception, no waiver and no compromises expected or allowed. Instead, it is
understood that a child who cannot do honour to his mother is worthless; he
enjoys scant regards among his mates. In this knowledge, therefore, and for the
sake of illustration, when your grandmother lives long, her family expects your
elder uncle to bring her home, even if home means the next village to Abia,
The point through, is that the flexible freedom imbued in Esan culture and
which admits of extenuating factors is truly reflective of the human condition.
Thus, if the right things were done, an Esan woman could rest in a convenient
place, whether in Abeokuta or anywhere else in the world. The persuasive
argument for her interment in such an otherwise foreign land, it could be next
village because it was not native to her, is founded on a valid request to that
end; a consideration sought and obtained by the rightful person, the first male
child. He may be accompanied by his age mates and may be advised by coevals of
the deceased. An older person has no place in the delegation.
I hasten to state that such persons from Iruekpen, Ekpoma abound in the
Lagos-Abeokuta axis. There is Odia Ofeimun from Abia quarters, same as your
maternal family. I believe Alfred Ilenre from Idumeke and Joseph Akhigbe from
Idumegbede would be honoured to accord respect to an Iruekpen notable like your
late mother and would go with you in the journey. While Odia and Alfred if under
sixty could discuss the matter, Joseph Akhigbe may advise for he cannot partake
in the discussion of the funerary of his junior. Ask pertinent questions and
locate these gentlemen soon, to accompany you and your friends to the segmental
Request them to assist you to appeal to Abia people that you be granted the
dispensation for the remains of your mother to rest in a convenient place. It is
a rare request, an exception but I assure you that it is never refused. With due
process, your mother's family - it is beyond the Abebe unit in the lineage -
would concede a few things. They would certify that the convenient place is
ideal. I imagine they would enquire if the convenient place is your own house.
Nobody would grant you permission for her burial in your father's house or in
the bush or dustbin. All done, I believe the youths of Abia quarters would be
dispatched to accord your mother the deserved honour and preserve her from dirt
and insults. Their duty includes to protect her and take notice that she was
carefully handled. Having been denied the ultimate honour to lower her into the
crypt, they may impose a minor fine on you. It is not much; it may not be more
than N50. However, if you do want to accord her full cultural rites of passage,
of course, that would entail great celebration and merriment.
We note that your father indicated preparedness to pay any fine
that may be imposed. Sorry he cannot do so. Nobody would accept anything from
him. The reasons are many but these two would suffice as a guide. The current
tiff has revealed a few omissions. He did not seem to have fully conformed with
the cultural norms in the marriage rites. He may have paid the bride price but
there were things in Esan marriage he unwittingly left undone. Among others, he
did not send the smelly he-goat and a bundle of seven yam tubers just before
your birth. It was the deserving right of the youths of your maternal lineage.
They were denied their entitlement to feast and celebrate the impending
motherhood of an Esan maiden. That is the only fine your father may now pay to
the youths. On payment, they may in turn, courteously inform the elders that the
wrong has been corrected.
You can see why nobody, not even wise and thoughtful elders, would discuss
with a man who did not perfect his marriage. There is a second point. It is that
in Edo culture, a man does not discuss the burial rites of his late wife. It is
strictly between the first male child and those younger than the deceased.
Elders do not partake in all the talks about burials and do not plan the
attendant cultural ceremonies. Though you now know you have a burden you cannot
shirk, do not be askance in your resolve; you are allowed to receive assistance
from friends and relatives.
I may reiterate that to accord with the lawful custom, it is important that
the place where your mother now rests is a part of your own house. Your father
may have his plans. Whatever they are, implore him not to complicate matters for
you and his own family. Tell him, for his education, that he cannot himself
rest, whenever God chooses to call him home, beside your mother. In Edo culture,
where a man lives and dies and is buried is his Igiogbe; it is the sole
inheritance of his first son. Igiogbe cannot be willed away to another child.
The practice may not be too different, save details and nomenclature, in Egba
I regret I cannot accompany you to discuss with your maternal kindred. And
certainly Julius Okojie, cannot do so, either. We are both from Uromi, far away.
Despite that Uromi has ancient non-aggression pact with Ekpoma, I am afraid we
may be justifiably treated as blatant busy bodies and irreverent interlopers in
the practical deaths of this master. Not even everyone from Iruekpen, Ekpoma,
for that matter would be well received by the family. But, thank God, you are
grown up. You have been seasoned by the weather, clement or stormy. You seem to
have good friends and your paternal family appeared able and willing to support
you on your honourable journey.
Our sincerest wishes are that you do not forget whence you come from. You are
at liberty to take a legitimate part in our common cultural inheritance. You are
entitled to even a piece of land in your mother's quarters, to erect a dwelling,
for instance. Demand it and nobody can refuse you. Take heart and be proud of
who you are - the offspring of an Esan woman.