A friend visited the cancer ward of University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan and was visibly shaken because he saw death floating in that ambiance. To think that most of the patients were on the exist route, the time being immaterial but going they would. While that realisation crept over him, an elderly man who was watching him; pierced through his thoughts with his deep baritone voice and declared that ‘life is a terminal illness’.
Is life a terminal illness? Are we all born to die? Pondering on this I practically pushed it into the gutter of pessimism. How can one paint life with such depressing strokes. Life is good, it’s meant to be lived in full, not looking back with the sword of death hanging ever behind. If not then we can as well mope, do nothing and wait for death to come. Why should I go through this rough life, working my skins off only to die? Life is good; it’s a transcendental gift that will help us merit commendation or condemnation when we expire.
My positive stance is not the ‘say no evil’ disposition of most Pentecostals, who assume that thinking or speaking ill necessarily translates into evil. The Nigerian diction has been enriched with expressions like ‘I am strong’, ‘my enemy is sick’ and other absurdities.
Since being surpasses non-being, then life is better than death. However, to remain on the natural level is to deny the most fundamental aspect of man – a rational being made up of a body and soul. The fact is that no one can live forever, and the reality of death shows that there is an essential difference between a living person and a corpse.
C. S. Lewis poured these into Screwtapes mouth: “They of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so.” When the fangs of death dig deep into the recesses of our loved ones, when death plucks were it did not plant, we are jolted to the realisation that life on earth is just transitory. This reality has much more merit than a thousand essays on life and death. Life is certainly a mystery, dying a greater puzzle. Yet the brevity of this earthly appearance in contrast with the immensity of eternity most times never strikes us.
Burial ceremonies for departed ones are even far more befuddling. For a widow, it is a death sentence. Aside the disgusting custom of hair shaving, a woman who has lost her husband – without a male child – is in for trouble; she is branded a witch and disposed of all she has. When this is not the case, then the family of the bereaved should prepare for a litany of absurd demands just to bury their dead. If dying is a disaster, burying the dead in this clime is no sweet talk.
I was delighted to learn that the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, has lifted the burden of burials in his kingdom. Achebe has slashed the internment rites from 3 days to a day (actually 11 hours). No more wake keeps and post burial ceremonies. The funeral starts by 7.00am and by 6.00pm same day, there should be no trace of visitors in the home of the bereaved. All external signs like canopies, hired chairs and singing bands must evaporate before 6.00pm and failure of which the bereaved family pays a cripplingly fine. In addition, the aso-ebi farce has been strictly confined to members of the immediate family. Who wants to incur unnecessary expenses, the acquiescence to this new law is surprisingly high.
I only hope that there is a fusion of Igwe Achebe’s decree with the trend in some orthodox churches in eastern Nigeria who insist that the burial be conducted within two weeks of death. This will not only prevent scandalous cost of burying the dead but will also prevent the ruining of most families. Many have been awarded a first class ticket to poverty on the death of their loved ones. That’s why the tears that flow when people loss their relations, is not so much about the pain of separation but due to the hole that will be formed in their pockets.
While I have no intention of lingering on the creepiness of death, I cannot but forget that there is a life there yonder. Man’s eternal temptation is to believe that we have so much time on our hands; that this life will not end. I suppose if we think more about death, we will be spurred to leave a trail of good behind us. So that when we take our final breath, there will be people who will weep – not hired criers – for us. Not so much in relieve for severance of a thorn but in pain for the loss of a strut. Let the good that men do live after them.