Burying the dead dates to many centuries of human existence, but, a ritual to bade farewell to the deceased varies from culture to culture.
In the Asante culture, death is perceived as closure between the living and the afterlife. The expectation in the Asante Kingdom of the West African nation of Ghana is that death must be embraced with optimism and courage if one has paid their dues.
A former Catholic Archbishop of Kumasi, Peter Sarpong, in his book, ‘Ghana in Retrospect’, explained that those who accept death as a passage of life are often successful when the time comes. According to him, a good death should rather be seen as a way of celebrating a person’s stewardship on earth.
The concept of death in the Asante context, therefore, is considered a transition to the spiritual world of the ancestors because it’s not an end of life. Irrespective of one’s religious persuasions, anyone of Asante origin considers funeral rituals traditional and one that is steeped in customs passed on from generation to generation.
The rituals for the dead in Asante commence once the living joins their maker. The first rite that is performed is for female members of the family to form a circle around the dying and pour water into their throat whilst reciting a prayer.
According to Emmanuel Adu Addai, who has researched extensively on Asante’s culture and beliefs system, this ritual is important because the dead is about to begin an endless journey to the spirit world.
The water, he observed, is expected to sustain the departed in his journey into the underworld. It is in many instances considered taboo to allow the spirit to begin this journey without water. He explained that the water is to give the departed soul strength in climbing the mountain into the world of the dead.
Social-cultural anthropologist Marleen de Witte argued that death has a similar association with birth. That explains why when the departed are laid in state, they are adorned with white clothing to signify their transition to a new life.
The anthropologist pointed out that the practice of giving the dying person water is to enable him or her to climb the steep hill to the spirit world. The underworld is believed to be dotted with hills and valleys the dead must surmount before getting to their final resting place.
She literally projects it to mean that the departed will live the same life they did while alive, adding that, the farmer will farm the land, a chief will reign, and a driver will be behind the wheels in the land of the dead.
In his perspective on this journey, the Former Catholic Archbishop added that ritual objects or artifacts may be placed beside the corpses after they have been dressed or washed.
This is done according to the socio-cultural characteristics and gender of the dead person. The Archbishop explained that in the event of the death of a husband, the widow is expected to provide a towel, sponge, money, jewelry, bucket, soap, pillow, and a long piece of hand-woven cloth among others to facilitate the transition of the departed one.
In his paper ‘End of Life Care, death and funerals of the Asante’, Adu Addai said this ritual is observed to ensure that the departed does not live in need or penury in the land of the dead.
Anthropologist de Witte indicated that it is akin to a traveler on a journey; he or she takes basic requirements of survival when departing so as not to burden their benefactor when they arrive.
She explained that it would be uncustomary for a traveler to go to a place empty-handed, adding that, it is rather seen as healthy to give the deceased money and make provisions for their survival before they get to the underworld.
Death may therefore be a painful transition for the living, but, for it to be comfortable for the departed, they must be given a sip of water to aid their journey and money to ensure their survival in the land of the dead.