[Column] Alaafin: How we bury the dead is how we respect life


Abimbola Adelakun 

The Oyo State branch of the Traditional Worshippers Association of Nigeria was right to condemn the open display of the remains of the late Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III, during the Islamic prayer rites. That aspect of his transition was unbecoming. Having witnessed a few Muslim burials, I understand they are characteristically simple and even humbling. Still, for a traditional ruler of Alaafin’s calibre, the open display of his body in a wooden crate was undignifying. How did it happen that they could not even provide even a gurney to transport his remains? That a raucous crowd also accompanied his corpse, many of them holding up their smartphones to record the event, drained the occasion of solemnity. The haphazardness spoke poorly of us.

Alaafin’s burial mode is one of the fallouts of our cultural attitude toward life’s many inevitabilities, one of which is death. Partly because we are a society yet to conquer death, confronting it can be an uneasy experience. Instead, we tend to act as if life is interminable and get stumped when death eventually happens. Our “paramount” traditional rulers have been dying serially and the handling of their funeral rites has given us away as lacking a culture of preparation. When Olubadan Saliu Adetunji died in January, his remains too were subjected to a similar tawdry treatment. Even if these men were not traditional rulers, their passing deserves a more thoughtful arrangement. These were older men whose deaths were not unexpected. Would it have been too much to plan a proper burial ahead of their eventual demise?

At a superficial level, what the Traditional Worshippers Association protested boils down to a conflict between modern culture and tradition. In times past, the process of merely announcing the death of an Oba like the Alaafin was drawn out due to the elaborate rites that must be performed at different stages of his transition. But those were in the olden days when the Oba’s aides and palace messengers had to walk across different communities to communicate the news of an Oba’s death. These days, all it takes is instant messaging on a single mobile phone and the whole world could know within minutes. The issue of how the burial of a paramount ruler can be announced in the age of the internet also came up when Ooni Okunade Sijuwade too died. Up till now, we have still not devised a stately and noble means of announcing an Oba’s demise in a hypermodern world.

Again, though the protest about how the Alaafin’s burial came from self-identified “traditional worshippers,” it would be overly reductionist to reduce their irritation to a simple matter of a clash of religious cultures and traditions. What we typically call “traditional religions” in our culture are modern in their outlook. Religions like Islam that some people typically put down as “foreign” have become so deeply enshrined into our African traditions that they can be safely characterised as “traditional.” Both Islam and Christianity in Africa have existed for centuries and anyone that still thinks these religions are antithetical to our African “indigenous” traditions needs to catch up on their own history.

These were some contextual nuances that seemed to be missing when Ogun state lawmakers debated a bill that purportedly sought to modernise the burial rites of traditional rulers. The Ogun State Traditional Rulers Installation and Burial Rites 2020 (now signed into law) allows for an Oba to modify or personalise their installation and burial rites according to their religious beliefs. The separation phase of pre-installation, when the person chosen to be a monarch undergoes a period of seclusion as a prelude to their royal life, can now be waived. But that separation phase is also when royals are supposed to be oriented into the history and customs of the people they would represent. Those rites are universal across cultures, especially ones that still retain a monarchical system.

The lawmakers argued that they sought to address the funerals of Obas through the law to stop the cannibalism and mutilation of Obas’ corpses, a carryover from the “dark ages.” Now, an Oba/their family could choose the burial pattern. First, the idea that people feast on an Oba’s remains merely further demonises the practitioners of African traditional religions who are often victims of public ignorance. The lawmakers should have known that the activities during the king’s pre-installation are now modified to fit the exigencies of the modern world while most of their burial rites no longer include primitive practices. There are existing laws against cannibalism and tampering with a corpse, why not enforce them rather than create more laws to solve what is, at best, a marginal problem? Second, the anxiety about primitive burial rites cannot be what makes royalty unattractive to potential candidates needed to fill those positions as Ogun lawmakers argued. If a calibre of educated and urbane people is reluctant to take Obaship positions, it is more likely because such roles do not carry enough remuneration to justify the restrictive life that one must live afterward.

The idea that an Oba’s installation and funeral rites could be customised to the point of extrication from the traditions of the people the Oba supposedly serves ultimately institutes a culture of leadership sans accountability. A traditional ruler in a place with eclectic religious beliefs like Yorubaland might subscribe to a religion privately but they also have a moral duty to personify all the belief systems within their domain publicly. Every God in their supposed kingdom should be their God and their lives and deaths should symbolise such ecumenism. So, rather than purportedly “modernise” an Oba’s burial, they could simply organise how their burials would be conducted. Many Nigerian states already have a Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters that can serve as an organisational bureaucracy to oversee the burial planning for these rulers—at least the ones considered as “paramount”—while they are still alive. There should be agreed-on protocols and regular check-ins coordinated with palace aides on steps to take when an Oba dies. That way, Obas’ burial rites can retain decorum.

The matter of an Oba’s burial might seem trivial but taking it seriously is demonstrating that, as a society, we prepare for eventualities and learn to do things appropriately. A society that does not treat death with deserved dignity will not know how to appreciate life either.

I also must state that I am neither a starry-eyed royalist nor do I harbour any nostalgic sentiments about the relevance of traditional rulers in modern societies. Left to me, monarchies will probably not exist in Nigeria. Even if they do, they would be funded by their respective communities. Any people who want an Oba should contribute money and sponsor one. It should not come at the expense of the public, most of whom have no use for their existence. I have never quite bought into the idea that sustaining royal institutions is useful because they are custodians of our traditions.

No single person, even with their investiture, is a keeper of a society’s traditions any more than the rest of us who live and breathe those traditions every day. For Yorubaland, where thugs and rascals have been enthroned, monarchs are already commonplace. These days that “ancient kingdoms” dot virtually every local government making all sorts of spurious antiquarian claims and many of them headed by “imperial majesties” that are neither imperial nor majestic, nobody needs harbour the delusion that monarchies are all that ennobling.

Notwithstanding my modernist reservations, I still face up to the reality of their existence. If they will continue to exist and at our collective expense too, they must justify themselves. Their activities and social conduct need to be properly structured and their public activities must be representative of the ideal standard of our so-called traditions. If they live up to expectations, the best we can also do for them is to see that they are buried with proper honours and grandeur that speaks well of the dead and inspires the living. (Punch)

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