Death and Funeral Rites in Contemporary Akan Society: An Appropriate Christian Response by Samuel Twumasi Ankrah

Introduction

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.

Christian Response

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 follows:

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. 1:3, 20-23).

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 honor.

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 funeral, or

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.

Conclusion

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).

Bibliography

Kraft, Charles. 1991. What kind of encounters do we need in our Christian witness? Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Vol. 27, No. 3 (July 1991): 258-265.

Mbiti, John S. 1992. Introduction to African Religion. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Educational Publishers.

Soper, Edmund Davidson. 1938. Religions of Mankind. Cokesbury: Abingdon Press.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

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