If everyone reading this GetReligion post could be very quiet, we’re going to explore a New York Times feature on Ghanaian immigrant funerals in the Big Apple. I ask you to pipe it down because the Ghanaians are partying like it’s — well, like someone is dead — and we sure wouldn’t want to interrupt the dancing, laughing and drinking with something so benign as discussion of spirituality and/or religion.
To set the festive mood, here’s the top of the story:
At 2 a.m. on a Saturday in the Bronx, the dance floor was packed, the drinks were flowing and a knot of young women with stylish haircuts and towering heels had just arrived at the door, ready to plunge into the fray.
It could have been any nightclub or wedding hall — except for the T-shirts, posters and CDs bearing the photo of an elegant older woman. The raucous party was, in fact, a funeral for Gertrude Manye Ikol, a 65-year-old nurse from Ghana who had died two months earlier. A few blocks away, guests spilled out of an even more boisterous memorial.
The Irish may be known for their spirited wakes, but Ghanaians have perfected the over-the-top funeral. And in New York City, these parties anchor the social calendar of the fast-growing community of immigrants from that West African nation.
Keep reading, and this much becomes obvious: Ghanaian funerals are all about the party. Shallow immigrants who may or may not be familiar with the victim show up for a good time. Entrepreneurs, from disc jockeys to security guards, make a tidy profit off the affairs.
There’s no religion here. Move along, folks. At least that’s the impression left by the Times piece.
But brief, unexplored references in the article make me wonder if maybe there’s more to it than that. Is this a case where the story focuses on the wedding party, so to speak, and neglects to acknowledge the marriage ceremony preceding it?
The story notes that the funeral parties are held nearly every weekend in church auditoriums and social halls:
There may or may not be a body present, or a clergyman. The beliefs expressed may be evangelical Christian, Roman Catholic or secular.
None of the beliefs expressed, by the way, make their way into the Times.
Later, there’s this brief, vague reference to religion before the story reverts back to a throbbing room filled with music:
Inside, the M.C. praised Mrs. Ikol as a devout Catholic and a loyal friend, his voice amplified by a 15-foot tower of speakers.
That’s it. There’s no background on the religious makeup of Ghana or the immigrants. There’s no indication where expensive funeral rites might fit into that nation’s beliefs and rituals. Sadly, Wikipedia seems to provide more potential insight than the Times story, although this explanation is purely conjecture on my part:
Despite the presence of Islam and Christianity, traditional religions in Ghana have retained their influence because of their intimate relation to family loyalties and local mores. …
For all Ghanaian ethnic groups, the spirit world is considered to be as real as the world of the living. The dual worlds of the mundane and the sacred are linked by a network of mutual relationships and responsibilities. The action of the living, for example, can affect the gods or spirits of the departed, while the support of family or “tribal” ancestors ensures prosperity of the lineage or state. Neglect, it is believed, might spell doom.
Veneration of departed ancestors is a major characteristic of all traditional religions. The ancestors are believed to be the most immediate link with the spiritual world, and they are thought to be constantly near, observing every thought and action of the living.
From a reporting trip I made to Ghana’s capital in 2009, I can tell you it’s an impoverished Third World country where most commerce seems to occur at busy street corners as vendors peddle fruit, toilet paper and other items to motorists stalled in traffic.
The question of poor Ghanaians devoting limited resources to the dead has made headlines before, from The Economist to the BBC. Just last October, a Ghanaian news organization reported that the Roman Catholic archbishop of Accra had “deplored” lavish spending on funerals.
In a front-page story as far back as 1997, the Washington Post noted:
Indeed, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, funerals are profoundly important rituals — creative, colorful affairs that affirm the continent’s most powerful traditions and beliefs.
At funerals, children of the deceased are bestowed new parents and mourners hold long, passionate conversations with the dead. The poorest and most divided of families usually scratch together enough funds to provide a decent ceremony even if it buries them in debt.
In other words, might there be more to Ghanaian funerals than the parties?
It certainly sounds like that might be the case. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the Times story.