Burial Of the Dead In Esanland

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Since the smallest Esan Community was a unit organized on kinship, it was very rare for a person to die without a next of km. As long as he was an accepted member of the village with or without a relative, in health, he was like one of the fingers of a hand, acting in unison with the rest for the common welfare of a village and in death, was a collective liability. Even in modern times no Doctor just coming into the District would fail to be impressed and sometimes alarmed, by the whole village turning out to accompany one sick man to the hospital, particularly if it was a case of an accident. Thus, when a man died, the whole village mourned him for the customary seven days: they abstained from their usual work, dance and merriment.

(i) A CHILD: A few people usually from the Uelen went to bury it, Mourning was limited to the immediate relatives.

(¡i) A YOUNG MAN: He was buried by the Egbonughele and the Igene with no formalities; he was buried  as born - naked.

(iii) OLD MAN WITHOUT CHILDREN: He was treated like a young man - but in places where the clothing ceremony was customary, and he had performed it, he was given the privilege of a wash and buried with all respects, and clothed.

(iv) ELDERLY MAN WITH CHILDREN: He was buried with much feasting and the least sign of mourning. The pre-interment ceremonies are described below. The body was taken to the special burial ground for such respected people.

(v) MARRIED WOMEN: The corpse was returned to her family. The uniformity of this practice is rather surprising. When a man had been accepted as a member of a village where he was born, if he died there he was buried there. But in Esan custorn marriage does not alter a woman’s nationality. If an Uromi woman married an Ekpoma man, lived all her life and died in Ekpoma, she was still an Uromi woman and must be returned to her relatives in Uromi to avoid any suspicion of a foul play. In most villages there were different burial grounds or sections in the same bush. Children and childless people were buried in the same bush and old men with children were buried in different places. Each person had his or her own grave which was about three or four feet deep.
Only an Onojie could be buried in the house or in a special cemetery close to the Palace grounds. All others had to be buried in the bush. Hereditary Chiefs and some important men could be buried in their homes, but the children had to bribe the Onojie to obtain permission to bury their fathers outside the usual place. Indiscriminate burial of dead bodies in houses and compounds is an occurrence of recent times. The old custom built up by men Who had no knowledge of public health as we know it today, are now made light of, and in several districts the traditional burial grounds have been desecrated and turned into farm lands. The fear of spirits, like the respect of the dead, has vanished with the arrival of westernization. Today there are no more village burial bushes and homes and compounds have become the burial places for the dead. This is not Esan custom.

(vi) PRE-INTERMENT RITES: As would have been seen already, Esan of old had a deep respect bordering on superstition and dread for dead bodies, not just because they feared the dead body was that of a person who had joined the world of spirits, but because a dead body was a source of health hazard to the living as in tropical climate bodies decompose at an alarming rate, (it is - almost complete in four days); relatives, whose duty it was to prevent any disgraceful associations with the body of dead relatives, did all in their power to bury the body as quickly as possible before the slightest onset of putrefaction. Wake keeping therefore was an uncommon thing. There was one general reason when interment had to be postponed, and even in this case it was only for old and respected elders with children, grand children and great grand children, usually described as EYE BII IHIENHIEN. The reason was death such as on a bad or unlucky day such as the rest day - Ede Izele or Ede Qwo and in some districts, also the second day of the farming week was considered as unlucky day to join one’s ancestors lf an aged man died on such a day, he had to be buried the next day - but during the night when the dead was amongst the living, only the bravest of the living ventured out. The playful and harmless dotard whose whiskers Eye and Ihienhien pulled fondly a couple of days back, had now become an object of fright!

Before the body was ready for burial, it was washed, a new pot being used for the water. If the dead man was well-to-do the Egbele demanded the slaughtering of a goat called EBHE IHION in honour of the sponge with which the body had been washed. The body was then wrapped in a new mat and brought to the front of the main building, for the ceremony with EMAN ELINMIN, the special foufou prepared simply with fish, or with the goat flesh in the case of a wealthy man. The children assembled round the body that was lying with the head towards the house ) On behalf of the first son one of the IKO EGBELE (Egbele’s  representatives) blessed the dead and cut some of the foufou at the feet. The children and all the descendants knelt beside the body and were given a bit of the food one by one. With this last sacrament at which the children have accepted themselves as one before their dead father over, the feet which had been exposed for this ceremony were wrapped properly. The body was then placed on a form made with seven fresh mid-ribs of palm branches (IKPOGBA IHINLQN). The whole corpse is then wrapped with a white piece of cloth, provided by the heir. While this was going on some Igene and Egbonughele had been busy preparing the grave at the appropriate site. The body was then taken on the head by two men, with the feet in front. For an old man with children there was dancing round the village, the places visited depended upon the whims of the carriers although they made the onlookers believe the dead body was directing them then they headed for the cemetery with the heir holding the pot that had been used during the washing.  When the body had been interred the pot was placed on the tomb and everybody turned for home with the strict injunction that no one must look back or knock each other’s heels. The idea was to get out of the burial grounds as quickly as possible. The hoes and cutlasses used were left at a gutter (ULANMN) in the compound for seven days before they were touched or used again. The Igene and Egbonughele washed their hands and feet in front of the house before they entered their houses.
Where the dead man had no issue but had a godson, the god-child assumed the position of a first son in all the ceremonies - since Esan people believe OMQN NA KHA BI1 KHE ORO(A child you could have had, is your godson). Eman Elinmin (the last meal) was firmly believed in, since Esan believed that the journey to the world of spirits was long and tedious. Thus any condemned person was also given this simple last meal before execution, to provide energy for the last journey.

Again and again I have stressed the need of our elders and the Enijie being constantly vigilant in the preservation of their custom and laws because of the persistent battering and assault both are receiving in the hands of education, religion, politics, sheer ignorance and modern technological advancements. There is an Esan adage which says, “When you start doing things that were never done before, you start seeing things no one had seen before”. I have written about Esan respect for the dead - particularly the elderly. Today when a man dies the children get a sort of embalmment done at a hospital and put away the body in a cold room awaiting the arrival of the children from Europe or America. Sometime it is because they do not consider the period right for the great merriment they are expecting or sometimes the children give as a reason for such postponement - wanting to save up for a grand mortuary rite When finally the funeral rites are to start there is a wake-keeping at which the body is exposed for all including children to view. Children no longer fear the dead and so respect for dead people is no longer the norm.

There is an incident which illustrates the points I am making beautifully. On the l3th of April, 1989, a respected old man from a famous family in Benin died. He was Pa Omorogbe Effionayi reported to be 115 years old and a senior brother of our respected Chief (Dr.) Iyayi Efionaye, a timber magnate, an acknowledged millionaire and a philanthropist. Pa Omorogbe’s body was deposited in the University of Benin Teaching Hospital Mortuary until the l9th of May, 1989 when the relatives and a gathering of dignitaries carne to claim the body for the funeral ceremonies. The body was found missing it took the tenacity and calibre of members of the Iyayi family to trace the body to Ewohimi in Esanland, some 150km away buried. Can anyone think of a more disrespectful thing happening to an elder! Obviously an Odionwele of a verile community of Egba in Orhionrnwon Local Government Area suffered this indignity because of modernization. Our culture and tradition teach absolute respect for the elderly dead and a minimum exposure. Esan Edion were buried as soon as they died - El MUN YAA! (It is not kept till later)

The time between death and onset of the burial obsequies depended on wealth and affluence of the dead man and standing of his children. Rich families usually began at once or shortly after the man’s death. In the case of the Onojie. it will have been seen already that the ceremonies were so vital that they were soon  after the death of the last Onojie.

The funeral ceremonies were performed for one’s Eghele and the success of the ceremonies depended upon the satisfaction of the elders and various bodies like the married daughters of the village (Ekhuian), Edowaya (Helpers) etc. The first son of the dead person was the pivot of the whole occasion. All brothers and sisters did their share under him

(a) UTARE: This was occasion on which the heir made.
Public announcement of the father’s or mother’s death. It should be a ceremony lasting one day, although to show wealth, some families prolong it. The requirements consisted of a ring of fish and a goat; the goat was slaughtered and like the fish, it was divided into two halves with the celebrant retaining half while the Egbele took the other half. At the end of the ceremony of Utare the day for the actual burial ceremonies was fixed near or put off, depending upon how ready the family was.

The Utare ceremony itself had significant purpose. It was on this day that the wives to be inherited were disposed of. Those who were not going to be inherited began their formal mourning. In the eyes of the Edion if one of their grades died and the heir had not performed the Utare ceremony, that man was still alive and appropriately when they shared anything at the Okoughele, they faithfully sent the dead man’s own to his house! The children could avoid this respect which is embarrassing for them by at least making a public announcement of their father’s death which is known in ESAN custom as UTARE. This custom also laid it down that this ceremony should not be delayed for more than three months. If it was not done after three months, as far as the Edion were concerned, their colleague left the village for a very, very long journey, and he got no more share from their booties.

(b) UHELAMIN: This is the first stage of the burial ceremonies. On the eve of (he appointed day, which is customarily EDE IZELE or rest day, and early next morning, (he whole village reverberated with (he booming of guns and feasting. The evening start of (he ceremony usually is around 10.00 pm. (Ede Izele). In most part of Esan ‘A’ the actual first day of the ceremonies fell on first day of the farming week, that is on Ekpoma, Igueben, Okhuesan, Ekpon or Ugboha market lay.

First a she-goat was slaughtered in honour of the parent’s waist, that is, for having been able to have children. Dances and friends came to heighten the effects of the day, while the children all spent freely, voluntarily or on demand. On the second day, there was a lull in (he activities; on this day came the EDOWAYA who were the celebrant’s helpers - they accepted presents and thanked the givers on behalf of the man they were assisting. On this day too, a cow was slaughtered. As soon as the cow was shot, the first person to touch it with a matchet owned the tail, by custom, an obvious incentive our forefathers invented to ensure that the cow shot or wounded was recovered, because without the cow all the ceremonies would be delayed. On the third day foufou in large quantities was prepared. It was shared as follows - thirty foufou balls for the Edion, twenty for Igene and their underlings, the Eghonughele; the rest was shared amongst the visitors. Using the cow meat of the previous day the soup pots were loaded in such a way that they would be acceptable: the Edion and even the igene had the knack of refusing their share on the ground that it was not sufficient. In such a case, he, (the celebrant) had to use money to bribe the people to accept; therefore he might as well make sure that the foufou and soup were of such quantity that only a gathering of elephants would grumble at the size - hence the cow even till this day, is a MUST for the burial ceremonies, although in some districts like Ughoha burial ceremonies outside the royal family were limited lo goats. Only a few people in the district were ‘Qgheminas’ (those who buried their father with cows).

The fourth day was the day of IKHUEMIRE. All the men who married the daughters of the man being buried came down with something like a war dance. Shooting guns and praising their parent-in-law. Each son-in-law brought the customary gifts consisting of a goat. a fowl, a piece of white cloth for the celebrant. thirty coconuts and Elanmen Ihinlon (6533 cowries equivalent to 27.2k) for Edion Eghele, twenty coconuts and Elanmen Isen (4666.7 cowries or 19.4k) for the Igene and Okhihinlon (980 cowries or 4k) for the intermediary. A man’s greatness in life could be ascertained by the grandness of his burial ceremonies which was also influenced by the number of sons in-law that came with this type of dance. The wealthy Afua of Ekpoma went down in history when one hundred sons attended his funeral ceremonies.

The ceremonies of the fourth day dominated by the Ikhuernire were of great significance. The Ikhuemíre was an indisputable evidence of lawful marriage. It was only the legally recognized husband that was permitted to attend the father or mother-in-law’s funeral ceremonies in this way.

The fourth day ended with ceremonial hair-plaiting called ETO OKUKU, a feature of all really big funeral ceremonies. On the fifth day, the Edowaya then showed the celebrant the accounts of those who had sent him presents and what had been collected during the ceremonies. He carefully noted these as he would be required by custom to return these presents in greater measure when any of these friends were involved in a similar ceremony after this the helpers were feasted, thanked and they left.

As soon as possible after this the chief celebrant killed a goat or used a whole carcass of an antelope to end the burial ceremonies, expressed as Fanon  len Uria . This is the final act in a ceremony that left the heir exhausted and broke - but he had done all that was necessary to have full right to inheritance of the person  e had just honoured with a most crushing funeral. 13. OGBE CEREONY:
In most places all that was necessary to have full right to inheritance and the title, if any, of the dead parent was to perform the burial ceremonies strictly according to native laws and custom that is, to the satisfaction of his Egbele. But in Uromi and Ekpoma, in particular, another ceremony had to follow and this was the OGBE. Like the burial ceremonies it involved the slaughtering of a cow and the spending of a Lot of money, the whole proceedings concluded with the dressing of the cow’s head which was tied with some raffia cane and hung up; this part was the most vital for without its being done all the expenses were for nothing.

It was not everybody that was either entitled or required to perform Ogbe. It was usually the first son in a large family or an Ominjiogbe that was required to perform it before he could have legal authority of inheritance of his father’s and family property. lf a man performed it, it holds good for himself and his children, that is, he had confirmed his own line’s right to inheritance: if he died his son must succeed him fully. But should this son now die without performing the Oghe ceremony the grandson could not inherit the family property, like economic trees, titles etc. Claim to these things then passes to the senior uncle of the loser. This must be very clear: for example, a man had three Sons - Uduehi, Itama and Obaedo. Qn his death, Uduehi, the heir successfully claimed everything after burial ceremonies of his father but without performing Ogbe. Later he died and his son claimed the family property and family title. He could not get them by native laws and custom. The right person to come forward would be Itama, the boy’s uncle, who, if he was wise and proceeded to perform Ogbe would now bring his Own line into the right succession  line.

In most places in Esan, even amongst the ruling houses, Oghe has long been considered redundant and claim to inheritance is decided by the burial ceremonies; instead of Onon lu Oghe na bhe ogbe (he who performs Ogbe owns the family tree), the more constant Esan custom, (after Ogbe was discontinued) came to be Onon ton Olinmin yan Uwa (He who performs the burial ceremonies owns the house and ah there-in). In the case of the Onojie, however, the expensive Ogbe is now incorporated into the funeral ceremonies except in Uromi and Ubiaja where it still has to be done separately.

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