The emergence of an industry that depends on death !

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Over the past decade, particularly the previous few years, organization of funeral across the West-African sub-region in particular and the African continent in general has changed steadily into an industry. Funerals have been noted as immense social occasions in West Africa that most often involve entire communities. The purpose of this piece is to identify and discuss some relevant cost-benefit issues concerning the emerging funeral industry in Africa. It is however important to discuss the concept of death and accompanying cultural values in order to better appreciate this phenomenon.

By Alhassan Atta-Quayson

It is remarked by a former Senior Research Fellow at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, Kofi Asare Opoku that “death is the inevitable end of man, but the attitude towards it is everywhere ambivalent”. In Africa, particularly the western part, death is regarded as a transition from the present earthly life into the land of spirits, referred to as asamando by the Akans. It is thus believed, said K. A. Opoku, that if proper rites and ceremonies are not performed, the spirit of the dead person may not be able to join the ancestral spirits. Performance of funeral rites therefore generates great satisfaction across the region. It is in this regard that the emerging funeral industry must be discussed. In this regard, a popular Akan adage is worth noting and that is “Ebusua do fun” which translates that bereaved relatives love the deceased and exercise more care on the funeral celebrations.

A growing number of people in Ghana have over the previous years expressed concern over the organization of funerals in various communities. Mention is usually made of the actual as well as the opportunity cost incurred in funeral celebrations. One important cost that almost always features in such discussions is the quantum of resources, particularly financial, spent on funerals. It is true that enormous resources are spent on funerals these days and that such resources could have been better spent on other social sectors of the economy such as, for example health and education. It is even believed elsewhere that not only could these funds have been put to other important use; they are actually spent at the expense of these sectors. It is also been noted that the amount of time spent on funerals over the past years amounts to waste in most cases.

Death industry

The other important issue which needs to be critically examined in any analysis of the emerging funeral industry is the feasibility of an industry to be built on death! Thus is it viable and appropriate for an industry to be established on death? As it has already been noted, death is inevitable, though efforts are being made every now and then to reduce the rate at which people die. And this is also an important issue because this industry will most likely tend to flourish the more there are deaths. But despite all these drawbacks of the funeral industry, there are some positive aspects which need to be looked for and critically studied. These benefits, in most cases, could be maximized for the benefit of the entire economy.

One phenomenal aspect of the emerging funeral industry is the level of innovation that has characterized it over the past years. I have personally observed that over the period indigenous people have devised remarkable innovative ways of organizing funerals. This innovation, it must be noted, has a number of things in common with similar trends observed in the ways marriage ceremonies are organized. Commercialization and formalization of activities and processes involved in these ceremonies is worth noting in this regard.

Commercialization and formalization,

Commercialization and formalization, it must be explained, is very crucial in the transformation of any economy. As developing economies are characterized by a huge informal sector, commercialization and formalization of day to day activities is extremely important to the transformation of the informal sector into the formal sector. Of much importance also is the potential linkages endowed with the sector and particularly the possibility of this process of commercialization spreading to other sectors of the economy. The analogy here is quite simple and clear. If a relative of mine has established a firm which undertakes the bath of corpse it is reasonably likely that I would also set up a similar firm with focus on different aspect of the economy.

In relation to the above issue is the considerable employment avenues created by the emerging funeral industry recently. The establishment of funeral homes across the length and breadth of the sub-region and the African continent as a whole is worth noting. These homes have notable positive impacts on the economy. Mention can easily be made of employment avenues being created as well as their contribution in terms of taxes, both direct and indirect, to the government. Cognizant of the essence of such industry, and in our quest to grow and develop, it is quite necessary, as a nation, to nurture these private sector initiatives, grow them, and spread them across all sectors of the economy.

Societal Cohesion

Funeral ceremony, with strong foundations in African cultural values, is an important source of societal cohesion. Unlike the developed countries who gather at various formalized and commercialized social activities, we have limited of these activities. It is in this respect that the emerging funeral industry needs to be carefully and thoroughly studied, particularly a comprehensive analysis of associated costs and benefits. Of similar importance is the fact that this emergence is being masterminded by the forces of demand and supply! As such careful and holistic analysis of the industry must take note of these issues.

It is my personal conviction that the organization of funeral ceremonies and the performance of rituals by the living for the dead to give emphasis to the unbroken family relationship between the living and the dead, undeniably involves appreciable cost. However, observed increasing benefits associated with the entire process makes it important to critically examine this phenomenon, focusing more on maximizing associated benefits

Alhassan Atta-Quayson is a graduate student of the University of Ghana and a columnist of African Liberty

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