“Abandon every hope, who enters here” was the inscription on the gateway of hell in Dante’s Inferno. I can assure you that I have neither visited hell nor do I want to. However, I accompanied a friend to a cemetery located in Sango, Ibadan, to visit the grave of his younger brother – Felix. The deceased, a young boy of sixteen, had just completed his secondary school studies and was awaiting admission into the university when he was called home some months ago.
I had obliged my friend’s request because I saw it as a duty of charity and justice to pray for the dead. I was also impressed by the way my friend and his family had taken the sad event. On many occasions, I had been consoled by the bereaved, instead of the other way round. They had taken the loss with a true Christian fortitude. It brought to the fore the brevity of human existence, the mystery of death and ‘the frailty of human promises’ using President Obasanjo’s words.
As we made our way through the cemetery, I was surprised to notice that some of the tombs had metal protectors around them. What a sad situation! It seems some people would not allow the dead to rest in peace. I was also disgusted by the untidy nature of the graveyard. The cemetery though very large, was unfortunately in very bad shape. The walls were carving-in in most places, while the burial ground itself was overgrown with weeds. As a result it had a very drab atmosphere. I wondered whose responsibility it was to maintain this facility. The dead deserve some dignity.
Different hues and shades of marble were used in most of the tombs, while others had just plain markings and some did not have anything at all. In spite of these differences, the tombs had many things in common. Firstly, no matter how beautiful the vault was, it always hosted a corpse. Secondly, on all the tombstones were inscribed name of the dead, the dates of births and death, with a hyphen in between; just a dash, a common hyphen to indicate how long a person passed through this world. A sign which in the final analysis shows that one day this life will extinguish just as it was lighted. Thirdly, the tombs all seemed to be saying one thing; “what you are, I was; what I am, you will one day become.”
We made our way to Felix’s grave where we recited the Response for the Dead, asking God to grant him eternal repose. It was while we were engaged in this pious act that I realised that very few people were accorded this honour. Instead, the usual thing was to have a big owambe that usually sent the bereaved families into penury after the burial: a consequence of the expenses incurred, the various aso ebis bought, the unnecessary delay before the burials, the ostentatious obituaries and a host of other trivialities that do not change the condition of the deceased. Unfortunately, we tend not to focus on the essentials, which is to supplicate for the dead and for the living. In developed countries, the burial is not only cheap but takes place within forty-eight hours after a person dies. That is why I admire Muslims, who do not waste time before burial. No matter who the person was, the burial takes place some hours after death, with a mat that wraps up the corpse and no more.
The trauma of death in this country is not only confined to the physical losses and economic travails, but it is also social and psychological in nature. For most widows, their lot is to be harassed by their husbands’ relatives and in most cases thrown out of their homes with their children. Besides, she may also be accused of being a witch or being responsible for her husbands’ death. Can we allow such things to keep on happening? Is it not a shame to our collective sensibilities that our society still perpetuates such crimes and the people involved are allowed to go unpunished?
The relatives of the dead always try to put a befitting resting place for their dear ones, as an expression of their love. However, we tend to forget that the greatest respect we can pay the dead is to live out the legacy they fostered when they were alive, that is if they left any behind. The amount of love that one was able to share out towards others is actually what remains after one is long gone. Josemaría Escrivá put it thus: “how little life is to love”. The ability to positively influence the life of others is what counts, what really matters.
I was struck while reading the posthumous biography of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. What I particularly like was the letter he sent to his son from prison. Part of it reads as follows: “I would have achieved nothing if after I am gone all I leave behind for you are empty houses and some bank accounts – for these are nothing – they can be acquired by any idiot! I want to leave for you something you would be proud of. A legacy of public service and sacrifice which would influence our country for good, which you will be proud to inherit and which I will be proud to pass over.”
I apologise for the digression, back to the cemetery. As soon as we finished saying the prayers, we made our way out. We had to say farewell to those who were already asleep in order to rejoin those who are awake. It was a motion from the dead to the living. Yes as I walked out, a particular canto in Dante’s Divine Comedy struck me like a bullet. Its meaning suddenly took up greater significance, it seemed to be addressed to me: “now you see, my son, how brief’s the spirit of those goods that in Fortune’s care, for which the tribe of men contend and brawl; for all the gold that is or ever was beneath the moon could never offer rest to even one of these exhausted spirits.”
If only I would remember often that one day I shall die, my body shall corrupt and my soul shall stand before God’s judgement seat to be rewarded or punished for my deeds here on earth. If only we are all not caught in this state of joint amnesia that makes us to forget or pretend not to recall this fact. If only we were to consider this basic reality of our corporal existence more frequently. We would make good use of our limited time here on earth, loving and being of service to others.
First Published in ThisDay, December 27, 2005.