Funeral Rites in Contemporary Akan Society: An Appropriate Christian
Response by Samuel Twumasi Ankrah
The objective of this paper is to examine the concept of death and its
ramifications in the contemporary Akan society and formulate a model of
Christian response that will be an effective model for ministry among people
of Akan culture in Ghana, West Africa.
Akan View of Death
In Akan cultural heritage the death of an individual makes an extremely big
difference not only to the deceased relatives but also to whatever
association one had during his lifetime.
Among Akans it is a norm for dead bodies to be kept in the mortuary for
weeks or months until relatives are adequately organized to give a fitting
burial ceremony to the departed soul. Such preparations normally take the
form of an expensive coffin, shroud, food and refreshment for invited
guests, provision of music usually by a hired band, publicity on radio and
television, etc. Where necessary many do take loans purposely to cater for
all these expenditures. This is especially so if the deceased had a
good-standing relationship with his circle of associates prior to his death.
In that case, sympathizers from the deceasedís religious, professional,
political and other forms of affiliations will mobilize financial donations,
transportation, etc. just to attend the burial or funeral of their departed
colleague regardless of the distance.
Why So Much Concern for the Dead?
The reasons death and customs accompanying it are given much importance by
Akans are many, but principally it is because of their worldview that a
meaningful life is found in maintaining harmony with the spirit of the dead
relatives - the "living dead."
The manner of funeral rituals express feeling of sorrow and loss as well as
emphasize the belief that death was not the end of the personís existence.
The spirit of the deceased will continue to influence the lives of his
living relatives with blessings or curses depending on how he was treated by
the living (Mbiti 1992, 119). It is believed that the dead have the same
desires, such as money, food, drink, clothing, so all of these are placed in
the coffin or beside the grave. In the case of a tribal chief, weapons and
servants are necessary to accompany him (Soper 1938, 67). Hence in
precolonial times people were executed and buried along with a great man.
How does the community of Christ within the Akan culture respond to a
worldview of death and funeral like the one described above? What happens
when an Akan who is a Christian dies? What ministry approach should the
church adopt so as to eliminate all the animistic tendencies and maintain a
biblically healthy model of funeral ceremony?
These are no simple questions. The answers definitely require a complete
paradigm shift in the Akan worldview of death. One effective approach would
be the teaching the theology of truth encounter. Theology of truth encounter
is a model of ministry which involves appealing to the mind and reason of
people by using the biblical truth so as to lead them to a correct
understanding about reality. The Lord Jesus Christ constantly taught truth
to his hearers about the person and plan of God. To change people from their
erroneous ways into righteousness, Jesus increased their knowledge with the
truth (John 8:31). When we focus people on the knowledge of Godís will, we
enable them to gain enough understanding to be able to accurately weigh
alternative options (Kraft 1991, 261).
The biblical subject that can most effectively provide converts from Akan
background with a better worldview on death and funeral rites is the kingdom
of God. The entire church should be taken through steps of studies as
First Step: God rules over the seen and unseen. This lesson should emphasize
the incomparable power and authority of God and his incomparable love and
holiness. Scriptures such as Gen. 1:1, Ps. 90:2, Ps. 103:17; Ps. 145, Deut.
32:15ff, and Acts 17:22-31 should be used.
Second Step: The power and authority of Christ. This should emphasize Godís
creative and deliverance powers which he manifested through Christ (John
14:9-11). His miraculous deeds speak about power: Jesus has power over death
(John 11); Jesus has power over evil spirits (Mk. 5:1-2); Jesus has power
over nature (Mk. 4:35-36); Jesus has power over diseased (Mt. 4:23-25), etc.
Third Step: The Holy Spiritís power over those in Christ (Eph. 1:13-14; Rom.
8:1-39; John 4:4).
Fourth Step: The bonding of Godís children in his church (Mt. 16:18; Eph.
Ramifications of the Theology of Truth Encounter
Emphasis on the above steps will filter all the animistic presuppositions of
death among the Akans and set their minds on nobler views about life and
death as taught in the scriptures. For example, Akan funerals entail: waste
of economic time;
waste of money;
sacrifices, libations, ritual murders (in the case of the death of chiefs),
necromancy, litigation over estates, etc.; and
the widowhood rite.
Extensive biblical teaching, coupled with dialoguing and reflections on the
above-mentioned ramifications will make a big impact in carving out a model
of "Christian funeral." For example, members of the church from Akan
heritage must understand:
that the human soul is from God and returns to him at death (Eccl. 12:7);
that the human body goes back to the dust from where it was molded (Gen.
2:7; Eccl. 12:7). Hence it is unimportant to spend excessive amounts of
money and time on funerals;
that God is the creator and ruler over life and death. Therefore, spirits of
the dead cannot harm the living because rituals were not performed in their
that God Almighty condemns acts such as sacrifices for the dead (1 Chron.
10:13-14; Deut. 18:11ff);
that the Christian who died in the Lord is rather blessed (Rev. 14:13);
that God has bound the souls of those who die without Christ and they cannot
influence the living (Luke 16:26).
that love, comfort, prayer, motions, support, are things that God wants us
to do for a bereaved family.
Can There be a Christian Funeral?
The responsibility for the funeral of a deceased Akan who is also a member
of the church naturally and legally belongs to the bereaved family or
relatives. Unless he made a will which states otherwise, the family or
relatives reserve the right to decide where and how a corpse is buried.
This really creates a problem for the local church, particularly where the
relatives decide to perform funeral rituals. What can the church do? First,
leaders of the church should meet with the family to sympathize as well as
to reach a consensus with them on the role of the church in the burial of a
departed Christian brother. And depending upon the mind set of the family,
the possibilities of seeking such a consensus could be:
that the family will insist on doing their rituals but will permit the
church to play their part after their rituals, or
that they might let the church take over all arrangements concerning the
that the church may not be welcomed at all to the funeral, in which case the
church cannot force their way to do anything.
Second, unless the church was hindered by the family of the deceased,
refusal to participate in the funeral will completely close the opportunity
for evangelism. No Akan will want to become a member of a church which
"despises" the funeral of a dead member.
The Akans have an elaborate burial ceremony because it is thought that the
condition of the deceased in the other world is determined in part by the
treatment he receives from his family and friends. Therefore, when consensus
is reached the church should organize the entire membership to participate
in the funeral without dabbling in any of the animistic practices.
Gailyn Van Rheenen, in Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, says, "In
Christian funerals...the evangelists stand before a believerís grave and
proclaim that our hope is beyond this world. God placed his spirit in man
when he breathed in him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7).... We believe that
our brother has gone to be with God who created him. Hope is directed in a
Christianís funeral" (1991, 34).
Kraft, Charles. 1991. What kind of encounters do we need in our Christian
witness? Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Vol. 27, No. 3 (July 1991):
Mbiti, John S. 1992. Introduction to African Religion. Nairobi, Kenya: East
African Educational Publishers.
Soper, Edmund Davidson. 1938. Religions of Mankind. Cokesbury: Abingdon
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts.
Pasadena: William Carey Library.
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Gailyn Van Rheenen..
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