I didn’t know I was still angry about what an archdeacon said at my father’s funeral some eleven years ago. I didn’t realise it until last month when someone added my phone number to my hometown’s archdeaconry’s WhatsApp group, and I started getting a barrage of messages from someone who called himself the Archdeacon.
The first thing I did was call around to find out if the Archdeacon was the same one that buried my father. Fortunately, he was not. But my anger that had resurrected did not subside. I made more calls to other people whose names also appeared on the same WhatsApp group. I wanted to find out who gave my name to the Archdeacon.
In the course of my search, people I spoke to told me horrific stories about their encounters with clergymen during the burial of their loved ones. It turned out that mine was a minor issue. The stories that I heard made me feel mine was like a negligible debt that Unoka in “Things Fall Apart” did not feel deserved a place on the ‘wall that does not leak.’
What I thought was an outright disrespect of the bereaved family by arrogant clergymen who had grown wings because nobody dared to challenge them had become daylight extortion. Maybe the best way to describe what is going on in today’s language is that clergymen in Eastern Nigeria are kidnapping the dead for ransom.
Yes, Anglican and Catholic clergymen in the South-East have been feeding fat by kidnapping the dead for ransom. If you think that killer Fulani herdsmen are evil, these clergymen are worse. Just like the way killer herdsmen kill their victims in their quest for ransom, these clergymen kill the dead for a second time. They also kill the bereaved and whatever remained of their souls and their respect for religious institutions.
For those who have not experienced it, this is how clergy extortion typically happens. Someone dies in a parish. The moment the parish priest gets the news, it instantly turns the clergyman into a vulture. He stretches his neck out, sharpens his claws and ingests medicine to purge his bowl in anticipation of a feast of the dead. It does not matter if the bereaved family is rich or poor, though any sign that someone within the family is of means triggers an exponential surge of greed. And if any family member lives abroad, the eyes of the vulture pop out just as the beaks widen.
When the church still had its sanity intact, a report of a parishioner’s death draws sympathy from the parish priest. That was when parish priests knew parishioners that were sick and spent time visiting them and praying for them. For the most part, those days are long gone.
This time, a report of a parishioner’s death brings out ‘the beast’ in the clergy. Even before the clergy pauses to mutter a prayer for the repose of the deceased’s soul, he first opens the church’s financial book to see if the dead person is in good financial standing. It is the same even in cases where the deceased had been sick for a long time, and the family had borrowed above their means to take care of healthcare costs. The first thing on the church leaders’ minds the moment the bereaved family knocks at the vicar’s door is money that the dead owes.
If the dead owes any money to the church, the parish wants it taken care of before any burial conversation begins. In most cases, the church’s permutation and combination to arrive at the amount owed often shock the bereaved family. Some families leave the church premises with over a million naira debts hanging on their necks, most of which the family cannot fathom how the church came up with it. Now, it doesn’t end at what the dead owes. Most churches in the East also demand that the family settles all outstanding fines and dues owed by every bereaved family member. Imagine a family that has gone through a lot trying to save the life of their loved one to no avail, having to deal with this new predicament. The church that should provide comfort turns around to squeeze them more in their moment of greatest grief.
If it ends there, it may be bearable. But scaling through the first hoop of getting a burial date means that the family must buckle up for others ropes to jump. On the day of the funeral itself, clergymen from far and wide storm the burial. Mind you, these clergymen will not care if the deceased was not a person of means or one who had children of means. A poor woman or man in a village has no chance of seeing clergymen lining up to attend their funerals.
They do not show up at any funeral because they have any connection to the dead, but because they will be going home with envelopes stuffed with money. They will also get the chance to be served specially prepared meals. They specify the number of rice coolers, mountains of pounded yam, and mouthwatering pots of soups, richly garnished with assorted meat and fish.
It is a different level of pampering if the clergyman in charge is a bishop.
On the Sunday after the funeral, when the bereaved family goes to church to give thanks for a successful funeral (whatever that means), the extortion continues. Because friends and families usually attend the church service, the church leaders turn it into a fundraising event. Clergymen shamelessly halt service to embark on a naked plea for money. In most cases, it is not even a plead. It is more of a blackmail. The clergy will go to any length to harass and embarrass the bereaved family’s guests to extract any money in their pockets and even a promissory note for the money they are yet to earn.
I heard of situations where clergymen stopped a funeral service with the body still at the altar and started a fundraiser. Nauseating. It is an extension of the church’s recent attitude that heaven can wait; these priests have no qualms in saying that the dead can wait while they raise funds.
Surprisingly, most of these priests have lived abroad or at least travelled abroad and have seen how those who brought the church to Africa conduct services and conducted themselves in all situations. But they would not emulate such. Instead, they are deep into the excesses that have virtually turned our society into an uninhabitable habitat. They miss these contradictions when they stand at the pulpits to preach against the ills of society.
Now, part of the blame for the decadence is on the people. Over the years, they have elevated men of the collar above all men. Without any limitations, it has gotten into their heads that some now consider themselves mini-gods. Clergymen who did not visit the sick, pray for them or help ensure that they receive the best treatment they deserve should have no business parading themselves at those people’s funerals. It is disgusting to see dozens of uninvited clergymen lining up like almajiris at funerals of people they do not know, only because they heard that the family is of means, and as such, would dish out fat envelopes.
Truly, I recognise that our people at home are vulnerable. These same clergymen have set them up to believe that their society is an all-around evil one and that the only way to survive is to run into the church’s arms. The church has used fear to convince the people that if the church does not bury them, heaven’s door will slam on their faces when they get there. The one that is so illogical is how the church has sold to the people the idea that the more the clergymen who attend their funeral, the better their chances to make heaven.
No mother has given birth to anyone who would convince our people that the stairway to heaven does not emerge as soon as scores of priests show up at their funeral. In fact, it is easier to convince Hindus in India that cows could be eaten than convince our people that the person who proclaims, “sand to sand, dust to dust,” at their funeral does not determine their place in the afterlife.
The biggest fraud is the perception that getting a bishop to officiate a loved one’s funeral does anything to enhance the dead person’s fate in the afterlife. If the people are perishing for lack of knowledge, it is part of the clergy’s role to correct them. Bishops should be saying to their flock, “I don’t have to be there for you to bury your parent because my presence won’t enhance their chances of making heaven.” If the people throw it back at the bishop that his presence would bring reverence to the dead, the bishop should be humble enough to say to the people that the greatest honour to give the dead is to care for the living. In the West, the typical instruction is, “in lieu of gifts, please donate to a charity.”
Of course, the people themselves, especially the wealthy ones, initiate some of these unnecessary behaviours and expectations. It is common in the South-East to see the coffin of relations of the rich flown into town in a helicopter. These may be people who never entered a plane while they were alive. Sometimes, you have people who never met a bishop in their lives, have bishops lining up to bury them.
Some states in the East have been streamlining the funeral ceremony to make it more sensible. Anambra state, for example, has reduced the number of days for the funeral rites. Towns and villages also have compressed activities and condensed requirements. To a large extent, those who choose to spend more money burying their dead than what they will leave for the upkeep of the people he or she left behind are doing so out of their own volition and not compelled by tradition or institutions. What the states have not done well is look into the extortion of clergymen during this process.
When the Archdeacon annoyed me at my father’s funeral some eleven years ago, I wanted to stand up, pick up the microphone and say something. I actually stood up, but a close friend of mine held my hand and pulled me down. He pleaded that I should not go out there and respond to the Archdeacon.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to say in my response. But I was sure it would be something nobody had ever told the Archdeacon. I was ready to walk him out of my father’s compound, but that would have been a scandal, a thing that was never associated with the life of my father. The other thing that made me pause was that I could put up a show and, one week after, leave. I realised that I would leave it for my siblings to deal with the aftermath, which is unfair.
I could have removed myself from my archdeaconry’s WhatsApp group, but that was what I did eleven years ago. I removed myself from confronting the cancer cells the Archdeacon spewed at my father’s burial. Maybe if I had done so, I could have removed the malignant cells or at least inspire those who would take on the fight. But I didn’t. The result is that the cancer metastasised.