The economics of death in Ghana

“You would know the secret of death.                                          

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Khalil Gibran.

The great Lebanese poet, Gibran is saying both life and death are one. But as we put a price on life, can we also put a price on death? What is the economics of death?

Looking at the data on death in any community and causes of these deaths should generate questions about the cost of these deaths to society.

When a society loses its labour force to deaths, that society is likely to suffer economic loses as well.

As economics is not only concerned with individual income and wealth and the choices people make in using what resources they have and what opportunity costs exist, economics is also concerned with how state resources are used to benefit citizens in accessing facilities, products and services that significantly impact the quality of life and longevity.

The provision of good quality health facilities, modern technology, including eHealth infrastructure and services are all meant to enhance the quality of life of individuals and make them live healthier longer lives.

It is therefore, reasonable in many cases to put a price on death.

For instance, even though euthanasia is not a major issue in Ghana, what price are people willing to put on a terminally ill relative in a hospital hooked to life support systems? Would families consider the medical cost and ask the doctors to pull the plug? Or some medical practitioners would advise euthanasia to save families and the health system money?

Death has economic consequences. Deaths through road accidents have economic impacts on the nation and families. For instance, when a bread winner dies in an accident, dependents may have their education cut short, because they are often unable to get the financial support for their education. A report carried recently by the Ghana News Agency cited an official of the National Road Safety Commission saying about 80 per cent of the people who die in road accidents in Ghana are men. And since traditionally in Ghana, men are expected to be the main bread winners for homes, it means that many more homes are experiencing some economic challenges as a result of road accident fatalities.

But more importantly, the concept of death in the Ghanaian society even makes it so poignantly, an economic issue. It is common to see and hear bereaved families wailing uncontrollably on hearing news about the death of a relative. Some of these people have been reported to have said words like these, “I am not crying because of the death of my kith and kin, but the cost of the funeral.”

According to Samuel Twumasi Ankrah (2002) in Akan cultural heritage the death of an individual makes an extremely big difference not only to the deceased’s relatives but also to whatever association one had during his lifetime.

He writes that among the 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,” he says.

In that case, sympathizers from the deceased’s 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, he adds.

He mentions that “it is a norm for dead bodies to be kept in the mortuary for weeks or months.” Keeping bodies in the mortuary attracts fees. These fees go up as the days progress. It is so because mortuary administrators want to discourage families from keeping corpses for long periods and also for decongestion, yet in spite of the costs, families still insist on keeping bodies in the morgue for months, sometimes for years as a ‘fitting’ burial is planned.

And a ‘fitting’ burial also means as the writer says the purchase 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.”

It is held among most Ghanaian communities that when a bereaved family, irrespective of its financial or economic status organises an expensive funeral, it wins respect and applause within that community.

The cosmology of most Ghanaian groups holds the view that life is a duality. The dead is believed to have merely completed his or her tenure on earth and would be embarking on a journey to the world of the ancestors. It is also held that as the dead will be joining the ancestors, it has been rationalised that the dead must be sent off properly, so that the dead person would be well accepted in the world of the ancestors. The expected implication for this worthy send-off is for the departed to in return shower blessings onto the living. These blessings include good health and economic success.

Businesses have sprung up solely to service the funeral needs of citizens. Funeral homes, bands that specialise in playing only at funerals, chefs that have expertise in preparing meals for funerals and undertakers.

Economics is concerned with the production of goods and services, distribution and consumption. The dynamics work for how we stay alive and how we are buried when we die.

And as the poem by Khalil Gibran says, “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Email: [email protected]

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