Cemeteries, Graveyards, and Burial Grounds

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

Some people make the distinction between cemeteries, burial grounds, and graveyards. I make no such distinction. They are all resting places for the dead. The stiffs. In any case, a couple of years ago, as an undergraduate student in Saint Cloud Minnesota, I had to visit cemeteries as part of a class project. When the assignment was announced, I almost fainted. Me? Visit a cemetery? Are you kidding me? Was it a joke or what? Why in the world would I want to go into a cemetery? I wasn’t dead. None of my friends or relatives had died. So, what’s the point going into a cemetery. Tufia…my time had not come!

I signed up to be a student; I didn’t sign up to visit cemeteries. I was going to tell my professor that “I am a complete Naijaman and Naijas don’t mess with cemeteries.” I didn’t think she would understand, and so I prayed. I prayed every day. I prayed the Lord to change my professor’s mind, sadly it didn’t work; and I couldn’t bribe my professor to give me another assignment. And I also couldn’t find a colleague to do my work for me. Furthermore, I couldn’t find a legitimate or acceptable reason not to partake or complete the assignment. Ha, there is no word to describe my fear and sorrow.

And then a day or two before my very first visit, I remembered part of my childhood. I remembered all the hours I spent — with other children — exploring and playing inside and around the cemetery at Obalende/Ikoyi. For sure, one could get inside the cemetery through Dodan Barracks; and if my memory serves me right, one could also get inside it through the then NBC area. Children, I suppose, don’t care about fear and superstitions.

In any case, the memory of those years flooded my mind and I felt calm throughout my body. My fear was gone. The fear was gone. There was nothing to be afraid of. The dead will not rise or torment me; they will not visit my dreams or my mind. Once the feeling and the realization sank in, my eagerness and enthusiasm shot through the roof. I couldn’t wait to visit the cemeteries. In all, I visited three cemeteries over a seven-day period.

What is it about cemeteries that makes us shiver and fearful? What is it about cemeteries that make our mind conjure images of death and dying and damnation? Why do we link cemeteries with magic, evil, pain, hell, fire, juju, voodoo and all types of unspeakable things? Why are the African psyche and cosmology at odd with cemeteries and other forms of burial grounds? For most of us, it will be our final resting place, yet, we dread it.

In most cases, an African living in France or Canada or in any part of the western world will freely walk into a cemetery without giving it a second thought, yet, the same African will hesitate going into a cemetery in his own neighborhood in Africa. In Germany and elsewhere Africans will freely and solemnly walk into funeral homes and morgues; but the same Africans will pray and then hesitate before going into such places in Africa.

There may be good and rational explanations for the fear and morbid reverence behind the African belief system as far as cemeteries goes, but I do not know what they are. In any case, it is odd that Africans are fearful of the dead. Those folks are dead. They will never ever rise again, so, what’ the point being afraid. They can’t hear or speak? Yet, we are afraid of them. The same Africans who are afraid of living are afraid to die and are also afraid of the dead. How strange!

Before going away to college I lived in Saint Paul. On most days I passed by a cemetery. After a while, I didn’t notice it was even there. But on the days I noticed, I use to wonder: who they were, how they spent their lives, what they died of, what they did for a living, who their families were, if they were loved and loved in return, what historical events they were part of? I used to wonder. Something else: if you were in Monrovia, Liberia, of the early 1980s, you’d notice the white-washed cemetery in the city. It was a lovely sight.

For my assignment, some of my questions were answered: some names had German or Scandinavian origin. Some had died more than half-a-century before. Some were buried with their loved ones. Some graves indicated the age of the deceased, what he/she did for a living. Some indicated their country of origin or place of residence in Minnesota. Some were eminent citizens of their day. Some resting places were simple head-stones or necropolis, mausoleum, tombs, catacombs, or crypts of different sizes, shapes and colors.

However, as one walk through the cemeteries, one cannot but notice three things: (1) the serenity and sense of calm and peace that washes over the grounds; (2) the cleanliness, almost spotless nature of the places; and (3) all the flowers and other beautifications that adorn the place. There was no eerie feeling. No fear. Nothing — just a feeling of peace and calm as one walks through the grounds. Through it all, I was curious as to the type of live they lived. I also couldn’t help but wonder: “where are they now”?

As I am writing this, I remember that in my younger days, I hated reading Obituaries and Memorials in newspapers and magazines. Today, I find them instructive. The Nigerian newspapers of my day had the knack for devoting several pages to such announcements. Reading them gave me the creeps. Another thing I didn’t like seeing was those long and endless processions to or from Tinubu, Igboshere, and around Obalende, and Falomo. Most were slower and more time consuming than General Yakubu Gowon’s motorcade.

Speaking of creeps: what about those gravediggers or men and women who worked in the mortuaries bathing and cleaning corpses? Back then, one was afraid of such people. One of the creepiest stories I heard in Lagos, as a teenager, was of a man who regularly had sex with dead bodies. That story has stuck with me all these years. Now, whether it was true or not is another matter. Such stories and stories of vanishing penises, shrinking breasts and brains, and kidnapping for money made several rounds in those days.

There are mortuaries and cemeteries all over Nigeria; but do Nigerians or other Africans engage in cremation (burning and reducing corpse to ashes)? In two or three decades, I’ll start thinking of my own death, my own mortality. Even so, there are times when I think of cremation. I am not saying it is good or bad. In fact I have no position on the matter. I just wonder. I am not even sure there are facilities for cremation in Nigeria or anywhere else in Africa. My own people — the dead and the living Ijaw — forbid cremation. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Today, I don’t think twice about going into cemeteries. They are clean and serene and still, and are good places to go if you want to evaluate or reevaluate your life and purpose of being. The environment allows you time to reflect about your place and role in this world. It allows you to wonder if you have been a good or bad person, if you have been truly useful to yourself and to your fellow human being. It is a good place to allow your mind and soul to wonder and wander.

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Miss Nnewi September 17, 2009 - 6:01 am

I never could understand the fear of the dead in the west myself..

Tim November 13, 2007 - 4:21 am

Once in a while, one should visit the hospital ward, mortuary or cemetary for REALITY check! Agrees it helps us to reevaluate and momentarily reconsider the 'rat race.'

poshposh November 13, 2007 - 1:09 am

Yes, there are cremation places in Nigeria. Funny enough i used to be intrigued about cemetries,because of the lovely head stones, statues etc. It's not as bad as people make out.I guess the fear of the dead resting places is because of the fear of death.


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