• Tuesday, March 05, 2024
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BusinessDay

The high cost of dying in Nigeria

Grief, lockdown and coronavirus: a looming mental health crisis

Death is as costly as living in African most populous country, OBINNA EMELIKE and SEYI JOHN SALAU write:

On hearing that his father has been admitted in a hospital for the second time in six months due to his deteriorating health, a middle-aged civil servant became adamant on sending money for treatment.

The 75-year-old man eventually died and the medical consultant that treated him decried that if the diseased family had sent money on time, the man would have survived.

Read also: Substituting elder care for befitting burials

But the doctor was furious on hearing how the deceased children turned his burial into a carnival of sorts, spending millions on expensive casket, food, drinks, souvenirs, hiring undertakers among others to ensure that the burial is the talk of the town for a long time.

It is ironic that many prefer to spend millions of Naira on burial than spending thousands to cure their sick ones in many parts of Nigeria.

The trend has been sustained over the years, despite the huge financial burden it places on the bereaved, with many selling the deceased properties or their own to raise money or even borrowing.

Therefore, dying is not cheap in Nigeria as burying the dead has become costlier than keeping the person alive while sick.

A survey conducted by BusinessDay revealed that generally, it is cheaper to bury the dead in the northern part of the country than in the southern part. The least with burial burden is the North West and North East, with North Central trailing behind.

However, in most Southern parts of Nigeria, the success of a burial is determined by the amount spent. In that regard, the South West and South East spend a lot on burial, while South-South spend the most.

According to Ebitimi Abua, an engineer with the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), the high cost of burial in most parts of Nigeria is influenced by cultural beliefs, status symbols and decadence in society.

He decried that burial is very high in the South-South, especially in riverine areas for many reasons.

“We value our dead, we also believe that the dead should not be treated badly, rather accord them respect, and you cannot do all these when the burial is not colourful enough,” he said.

He decried that most families think it will be shameful to bury their dead immediately or without elaborate celebration, bearing in mind what people will say.

“I am from Kaiama in Bayelsa State and I am Ijaw. People don’t bother themselves with the news of someone’s death, but how to give the person a befitting burial, especially if he or she is elderly. For a start, the corpse will be in mortuary for months and some over a year, not just to allow for planning or to raise money, but also to boast that the corpse stayed longer in the morgue. The lengthier time in the mortuary tells that the burial will be glamorous. That is what many believe,” he said.

But Tubokebima Timiebi, a senior lecturer at University of Port Harcourt, noted that the lengthy time a corpse stays in the morgue is not necessarily to buy time for burial planning, but cultural in some cases, especially when a notable person dies.

“There are some cultural rites you need to perform before the burial, they take time and also cost a lot of money. Most cultures in the South-South believe that when a wealthy man or king dies, you cannot bury him like a commoner. So, there is so much to spend on before and during the burial, which are cultural,” he explained.

With the current economic realities, the lecturer noted that there is no average burial again as the bereaved is expected to perform all the burial rites.

“Nowadays, people budget from N5 million upwards for burial and will borrow to ensure the burial is a success. I have heard some of my friends boast that they spent N10 to N15 million to bury their deceased. But this is part of the reason crime is increasing because society wants you to bury your dead like a king whether you have the means or not. It is a big issue in my area,” he decried further.

In the Eastern part of the country, it is quite expensive to bury the dead due to some cultural demands, the economy and most times, self-inflicted burdens.

While most people do not keep their dead in the morgue for a long time in the Eastern part of the country, no matter how fast the dead is buried, the burials are still very expensive because of the requirements, cultural rites, especially multiple layers of consultations with the deceased relatives, in-laws, maternal people, the community and the church.

From many bags of rice, to traditional goat, most burials now feature cow as a rite, despite it being very expensive and not being reared in the region. With that, many kill as many cows as their pocket can carry and use it later as bragging rights in their community.

According to Damian Osuji, an assistant director in Abia State Civil Service, burial has become a nightmare for the bereaved because of the huge financial burden that goes with it, leaving many to borrow, defer the burial in order to raise money or sell landed properties to give their dead a befitting burial.

“The cost of burying the dead is very exorbitant now. Some communities in Igbo land will demand cows, which is now over half a million Naira, many groups will surface to ask for their rites, from kinsmen, maternal people, married daughters of the land, and to even the church. It is terrible and the community will look down on you if you don’t fulfil the rites, some will stop the burial if the rites are not performed,” Osuji said.

According to him, the bereaved will spend money to announce the news of the dead to the kinsmen, spend money to consult other relatives, and will be given a long list of the rites, yet, the kinsmen or extended relatives will not contribute to the burial budget.

Okedinachi Elekwa, a lawyer, who buried his father in November last year at Umunneochi, in Abia State, lamented that together with his siblings, they spent over N8million.

“I was confused when our elder brother brought the list: goats, cows, drinks, food, security, and many other items and many groups that must be entertained. I asked how much the kinsmen or the groups are contributing, they said it is our sole responsibility, and after all, that we are rich.

“When I argued, my kinsmen said it is traditional rites and must be done because our father benefitted from other people’s burial while alive.

“I imagine the stress the poor go through to bury their dead. It is sad and the cost is increasing as the economy bites harder,” the aggrieved lawyer said.

But Hyacinth Unaka, a clergy, noted that the church, especially Catholic Church, has always intervened in the high cost of burial, especially with its insistence that once a person dies, the burial should be within a month else the church will not attend the burial. The church also urged the bereaved to skip wake-keeping and other activities to save cost.

Despite the church’s admonition, families defer the announcement of their dead until they are ready for burial. This has become a common trend, which the church frowns at, as huge money spent on burial should have been used to keep the deceased alive.

Meanwhile, private morgues are thriving in the Eastern part of the country due to many deaths nowadays.

They also add to the cost with regular hikes in their charges as local embalming services are no longer trending.

According to Unaka, the services of the private morgues are poor, but people are patronising them not necessarily for their cheaper charges but because most morgues in government hospitals are always full.

“People die everyday and the rate has increased because of the harsh economy. Many cannot afford hospital treatment due to the cost and cannot also buy drugs at the pharmacy due to the high cost. The cheapest malaria drug is N1000, good ones from N2000, antibiotics from N2000, that is why we are recording more deaths now,” he decried.

The ambulance services also have a union as well as casket makers.

As the prices of wood for making caskets, fuel and motor spare parts go up and owners of ambulances increase daily returns, the cost is being pushed to the bereaved as well.

Again, funeral homes are booming alongside funeral undertakers, which are not cheap, but add glamour to a burial.

Some charge to handle the mortuary, ambulance, hiring expensive cars for convoy and undertakers for colourful casket display. These services run into millions depending on the funeral home, who died and where the burial will hold.

However, most bereaved do not mind the cost, as long as people can attest that their dead was given a befitting burial.

But if the dead had the opportunity to speak, they would question why throwing a big funeral party when little money and care would have kept them alive.

For many family members, the economic burden and trauma that comes with every burial activity is better imagined than experienced.

“It’s never easy to bury a loved one, especially if the person died after a protracted illness,” Adeyemi Oluseyi, who buried his father recently, told BusinessDay.

Oluseyi disclosed that the immediate family didn’t feel the weight of the economic impact of the burial because the extended family members rally round the family to support economically. “As a Yoruba man, we that were members of his immediate family didn’t feel the economic pain that much because his family contributed some of the money needed and also decided to carry some of the burden.”

According to him, individual differences also have a role to play in the final analysis on how burials are conducted. He said that while some family may decide to be on the high, some could decide to be moderate in their expenses.

“In my own case, our father had been sick for some months before he finally lost the battle against prostate cancer. So, by the time he died we felt some level of relief because we didn’t disclose his illness to the family.

“I also think that influenced our decision to conduct the burial two weeks after he died because we felt there was no need to prolong the issues surrounding his burial. So, it was easy to come up with a date when the family and the church requested for a date from us,” Oluseyi said.

According to Oluseyi, when life comes to an end, the only thing left is to bury the dead. However, Africans engage in various strange practices in the name of culture and religion suggesting that the living care more for the dead than the living.
Speaking further from an Islamic perspective, Oluseyi said activities and burial rights for the dead vary on issues relating to the celebration of life for the dead.

“Ideally it is those that come to great that should provide food for the bereaved.

“Only prayer for the dead at three days that is ideal; however different sects or people do what they feel,” he said.

According to him, the amount of money spent for burial ceremonies could have been spent to care for the deceased that could have helped in keeping them alive.

But, in some cases we prefer to keep the corpse in the morgue sometimes in show of wealth, and other times for lack of agreement between family members.

“I know a certain family that abandoned their father for years to the point that people around thought he had no family member around in Lagos.

“A total stranger nickname ‘boker’ was the one who looked after the old man. They both lived in an uncompleted building till the man died.

“However, his children surfaced from nowhere to claim the land and even forced boxer to move out. What if he didn’t stay with the old man?