The Disappearing Mourning Culture of the Igbos

I will never forget that sunny Friday afternoon in 1995. I was on my way home from school with my friends, beaming with hope that I will see my ailing father once again. He’d been hospitalised for over a week after his appendicitis surgery got complicated. He was in so much pain the last time I saw him. We were in his bedroom that fateful evening. Lying on his bed in his poorly lit bedroom, he looked so pale and his voice very strained as he told me “Onyi, please pray that I get well soon.”

A bit confused and at the same time sympathetic of his condition, the child in me gently hugged him to my small chest, muttering the only prayer of supplication I knew then:

Holy Mary,

Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners,

Now and forevermore.

It was that image that was in my head when I told my classmates that I hoped to see my dad back home for I had missed him so terribly.

Little did I know that the Grim Reaper had already come for him.

I started noticing something was amiss when the neighbors greeted me with words of pity: “eeya, oyibo.”

I didn’t understand why they looked at me with tearful eyes or patted my back with a plaintive nod. What was wrong? What could have happened?

My 10 year-old mind couldn’t still fathom the ongoings in my environment until I walked into our apartment.

“Onyi, he has left you oh!” My mum wailed when she saw me. She was surrounded by familiar and unfamiliar faces. Some sat on the couch, some preferred the carpeted floor, while others stood. There were so many of them. Mostly women. Two women who sat close to my mother were consoling her, their faces grief stricken. There were those who joined in the mourning, occasionally drying their tears with the tail of their wrapper. Others just shook their heads in sympathy. In the midst of the tears, there were also words. Someone said “We were together at the last meeting. He looked so healthy.”

Another remarked: “Yours is even far. I was there when they took him to the hospital.” Who were they talking about? I wondered as I took in the scenery before me. The recurring word 'Him' was beginning to make me dizzy. I made an attempt to go to my mother. To explain to me why she was surrounded by these people and why were they all crying. Who has left me? Is it dad? My eyes were beginning to well up as I took each step closer to my mum. But one of my aunt intercepted my progress. She took me by the hand and led me in the bedroom where another wailing was in full swing. This time, it was my older sister and her classmates. “I knew he was going to die.” She kept repeating the words, as if in a trance while her friends looked on with pity.The harsh truth suddenly dawned on me. I felt a thousand daggers stabbing my little heart. My dear daddy is dead? So I won’t see him anymore? He is never coming back to kiss me goodnight or carry me on his lap during our drive to church? Who will pay my fees? Who will enrol me in the best secondary school in the world? Who will protect me from the ire of my older siblings? A sudden feeling of loss and despair gripped me and I wished my older sister would look up and notice me in the room, standing there in the doorway, shaking and breathing fastly.

I want my dad! The words screamed in my head but I couldn’t voice it. A tight pain clutched my chest, my legs suddenly felt too heavy. I couldn’t do anything. “Who is going to take care of us?” My sister asked no one in particular. Truly, who was going to take care of us.The pain was too much. Everything became blurry. My eyes were stinging with hot tears. I quickly dashed out of the room. Somehow, with my blurry vision, I managed to get to the kitchen. I leaned on the door, sniffing and wiping away the stream of tears gushing out of my eyes.

How could God be so cruel to take my dad away from us? Why did he have to do die? Different thoughts whirled around my mind.

The pain was so deep that suicidal thoughts seeped into my head. As if on cue, the first thing that caught my eye when I looked around the kitchen was the knife lying on the dish rack. There was no point in living if my dad was no longer alive. I couldn’t imagine a world without my sweet father, the one who promised me heaven and earth. The one who bragged about me to his friends. He called me his special one. Now he was gone. He has left me. Why? I can’t survive without him. We have to be together. Slowly, I took the knife from the rack. Its shimmering blade reflected my pale face. I could end all of this with one strike, just like I have seen in those action movies.

I held the knife forward, pointed its tip to my abdomen. My heartbeat raced faster, my bravery suddenly disappearing. But the urge was there. The world means nothing without him. Just as I wanted to plunge the knife, my aunt came in. I quickly dropped the knife. “You must be hungry. Come and eat something.” If only she knew hunger was the least thought in my mind.

As a young child then, I understood the intense pain of losing a loved one. The deep sense of loss and despair that threatens one’s existence. It was an unfamiliar terrain that my siblings and I were forced to acclimatise at a young age. None of us was beyond 16 years. Life was just beginning to happen when my dad died. How do we cope? How do we survive with his absence? Each time our playmates talked about their dad, we winced in pain or die of envy knowing that we would always refer to our sire in past tense. Even his memory,though sweet was never sugary enough to blot out the bitterness that burned in our hearts. For years, we battled with the acceptance of our father’s death. Not because of penury; mum ensured we had everything we needed. It was the painful interruption of life cycle that was too magnanimous for us to assimilate.

On the other hand, it made us stronger. Death was no longer news to us. It became a familiar event that we know would eventually happen to any living being. So when other relatives passed on, we never wallowed in that emotional abyss. Just a word of comfort to the bereaved was the best we could offer.

Interestingly, that same reaction is common in today’s generation. People are gradually accepting death as an inevitable occurrence, thus grief is no longer elongated. The shedding of tears and wailing are replaced by the unconscious determination to move on. Life certainly goes on after death. Why expend that energy on mourning the dead. Some people tend to delay mourning, sometimes as a show of bravura.

When my neighbour lost her father in 2014, she found it difficult to mourn him, partly because she was the first child of her parents. She automatically assumed the headship of the family, providing both physical and emotional strength to other members of her family. Not until few months later while going through some old boxes did she vent her bottled emotions. She spent more than three hours crying in her bedroom until her eyes were dry as the desert. Perhaps, it is this attunement that has led to the gradual disappeance of the mourning period in Igbo land.

The Mourning Ritual

The Igbo (southeastern Nigeria) tradition is a very interesting one. One that embraces practices as old as time irrespective of whose ox is gored. Like in many other cultures across the world, these traditions are not fair to the female folk. A good recipient of such acts are the widows. From the insufferable mourning ritual they are subjected to, to the constant attack they suffer in the hands of wicked in-laws.

Usually, when a woman lost her husband , she is expected to mourn her husband for a period of time. In my mother’s case, she mourned her husband for a year. Back then, Pentecostalism was hardly practised. The Catholics and other orthodox churches work hand in hand with the traditions of the land. For instance, the widow is expected to wear a mourning cloth which must be in white, black or navy blue. During her period of mourning, she is expected to wear this cloth always. The only time she is permitted to wear something else than her ‘akwa mkpe' is when she is within the confines of her home.

Also, the widow was expected to shave her head as a sign of respect to her dead husband. This is highly practised by the Catholic church. Her children are not exempted except those who have been given out in marriage.

After the burial which is usually a feast depending on the social status of the deceased, the widow is prohibited from stepping out of her late husband’s house in the village for almost a month. She cannot go to the market or visit anyone during this period. In fact, she cannot even go back to the city until she has completed the one-month imprisonment. Back in the city, the widow is expected to wear her mourning clothes. The clothes served as an identity and often attract unnecessary sympathies. Once the mourning period is over, the widow would first of all have a thanksgiving service before divesting off her mourning clothes. She is expected to burn them, alongside any accessories used during that period.

The widower on the other hand is offered freer options. He can choose to mourn his wife for any suitable period. Only few go the extra mile to don a mourning attire.

As Pentecostal churches began to spring up in the cities and villages, these traditions took a back seat. The churches heavily frowned upon the mourning culture and termed it barbaric. With the rising criticism, the mourning period was reduced to six months. In some south-eastern states, the timeline is reduced to three months.

Apart from altering the time frame of mourning, Pentecostal churches also advised their members not to indulge in the practice of hair shaving.

However, the implication of these changes were that most funerals recorded low attendance as catholic churches usually attract a large crowd at funerals. Moreover, they were predominant in most south-eastern states.

Also, there have been concerns raised by various human rights group protesting the dehumanised practise meted to widows in the region.

With this rapid change in culture, it is expected that in the nearby future, the mourning period will fade away or at least become optional to the affected persons.