Drums, trumpets, a coffin

Yoruba people perplex me in the way they do death. Funerals are events of loud colour, not unlike a wedding. The dead are not mourned. Their lives are celebrated.

One can tell a lot about a people from their funeral traditions. In some cultures, funerals are solemn affairs where people don black. Death is a mournful thing that leads one to consider their own end – something they probably hardly ever think about – while crying for the departed. In other parts of the world, funeral traditions are precisely structured to allow safe passage into a good afterlife or prevent being haunted by the ghost of the deceased. Here, death is not an end but all about what happens afterwards.

With the Yoruba people, death is seen as a well-earned rest after the turmoil of this life, and transition into this sleep must be done in style. Trumpets herald the arrival of the pallbearers who proceed to dance into the ceremony as the coffin bounces on their shoulders. In the midst of tears, the congregation sings praise and worship songs at the top of their lungs. It’s hard not to sway your hips to the rhythm of the talking drums even in your grief. People give thanks for the number of years the person was blessed with and the precious moments they spent together. Then there is the afterparty where relatives and friends dance away their sorrows to the tunes of Ebenezer Obey.

This may seem offensive to others but to the Yorubas the greatest respect you can give the dead is to remember them in joy. Some even celebrate lives decades after the fact in order to ‘turn the body’ because the person’s back must be sore after all that time of sleeping in the same position. Now this one seriously confuses me. And of course, the only way to do this ‘turning’ is to have a big party.

I find these practices amusing, especially when looking at it all from a distance. Yet when I myself am enveloped by grief, there is no other time I am more grateful to be a Yoruba person. Talking drums and trumpets are the ultimate cure for a breaking heart.


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