Last summer, driving through rural parts of Ghana to the north, I was struck by the relative lack of highway ads (though there were plenty of them when passing through urban areas such as Kumasi or Accra). The signage that we did see in rural areas were often “obituaries” – poster-size (or larger) announcements of death, often including a memorial passage to the deceased, details of the death, surviving relatives, and listings of chief mourners. Above is an example of how such obituaries are posted (but this was on a busy road in Cape Coast). A close up of one of the obituaries is in the picture below.
What is striking, of course, is how different this is from American (or Chinese) culture; there is of course some kind of cultural mechanism for announcing a death (an obituary in a newspaper, in the case of American culture for example, or the messengers that go out to family members and the shrouding of a rural home in China), but the posters in Ghanaian cities or the large signage that I saw in the Ghanaian countryside would not quite fit either American or Chinese cultural sensibilities. Now in China, there may be memorial posters of famous people – I remember picking up one such poster when we were in China when Deng Xiaoping died, and there may be public displays marking a death (flowers by a roadside where a car accident happened in the United States), but the particularities of these Ghanaian obituaries are distinct.
What do these differences mean? Is this yet another example of a more communal sharing of a loss, where funerary rituals are more public and participatory? I don’t think so, since the “announcement” function is a part of the many ways in which we hear about death. I remember watching a new story on the recent controversy concerning the filming of the deplaning of caskets at Dover Air Force Base, a restriction under the Bush administration that was lifted by President Obama (dependent upon the wishes of the family). In American society, public announcements of death may sometimes seem an unwelcomed intimacy or nuisance; one American university human resources staff member recently told me that faculty members at her institution often complained about the sending of death announcements over email, since they add more email to already-filled inboxes! Would these Ghanaian obituary posters culturally work in North Carolina?
On a similar note, I just met with a videographer in Cape Coast who specializes in filming ritual events, and we happily watched footage of various films of funerals that he makes for families. The industry of funerary videos is alive and well in Ghana, as it is in China (another videographer, from China, helped add to my collection of funeral videos). Although I have not been to a large number of funerals in the United States (even if I count back to my altar boy days when we performed ritual functions at Catholic funerals), I don’t think I ever remember seeing a videographer. They are a staple at American weddings, but American funerals?