Old people and funerals in a rural Ghanaian community: ambiguities in family care

  • S. van der Geest Medical Anthropology Unit, University of Amsterdam


This paper is based on conversations and observations made during anthropological fieldwork conducted in a rural town in southern Ghana. The author views funerals as a form of care which a family provides for old people after death. Both old and younger members of a family regard a fitting funeral as indispensable to mark the life of a person as successful. It is a family's responsibility to arrange a funeral. The author attempts to understand the meaning of funerals for older people, and draws attention to a common discrepancy between the grandness of funeral celebrations and the poor quality of care and moral support which old people enjoy from kin during the last years of their lives. He concludes that funerals are less a matter of showing respect to the deceased and making his/her life complete, as they are occasions for the family to celebrate itself and indulge in self-praise. If the social prestige of a family is at stake at a funeral, it is understandable that the family will be inclined to expend its efforts on public post-mortem, rather than private pre-mortem care. Most older Ghanaians appear to support this view.


Apt, N.A. 1988. Aging in Africa. In: Gort, E. (Ed.) Aging in cross-cultural perspective. Africa and the Americas. New York: Phelps-Stokes Fund, pp. 17-32.
Apt, N.A. 1992a. Changing family patterns and their impact on ageing in Africa. In: Social security and changing family structures: Geneva: International Social Security Association, pp. 77-88.
Apt, N .A. 1992b. Family support to elderly people in Ghana. In: Kendig, H., Hashimoto, A. & Coppard, L. (Eds) Family support for the elderly: the international experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 202-12.
Apt, N.A. 1993. Care of the elderly in Ghana: an emerging issue. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 8: 301-12.
Apt, N.A. & Katila, S. 1994. Gender and intergenerational support: the case of Ghanaian women. Southern African Journal of Gerontology, 3(2): 23-29.
Arhin, K. 1994. The economic implications of transformations in Akan funeral rites. Africa. 64(3): 307-22.
Baare, A. 1985. Omgaan met de dood: emoties en dodenrituelen bij de Akan in Ghana. M.A. thesis. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.
Bame, K.N. 1977. Akan funerals, an "expensive" tradition in the changing Ghanaian society? A sociological comment. Unpublished paper. Cape Coast.
Bleek, W. 1975a. Appearance and reality: the ambiguous position of women in Kwahu, Ghana. In: Kloos, P. & VanderVeen, K.W. (Eds) Rule and reality: essays in honour of Andre J.F. Kobben. Amsterdam: Anthropological-Sociological Centre, pp. 50-65.
Bleek, W. 1975b. Marriage, inheritance and witchcraft: a case study of a rural Ghanaian family. Leiden: Africa Study Centre.
Bleek, W. 1977. Marriage in Kwahu, Ghana. In: Roberts, S.A. (Ed.) Law and the family in Africa. The Hague/Paris: Mouton, pp. 183-204.
Chukwukere, I. 1981. A coffin for "the loved one": the structure of Fante death rituals. Current Anthropology, 22(I): 61-68.
Garlick, P.C. 1971. African traders and economic development in Ghana. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mends, E.H. n.d. Eastern Akan. In: Fiawoo, D.K. et al. (Eds) Funeral customs in Ghana: a preliminary report. Legon: University of Ghana, Department of Sociology, pp. 74-91.
Nimako, S.G. 1954. The Christian and funerals. Cape Coast: Methodist Book Depot.
Owusu-Sarpong, Chr. 1992. La mort Akan. Etude des formes d' enonciation propres aux ritesfuneraires Akan. Ph.D. thesis. Basancon: Universite de Franche-Compte.
Pobee, J.S. 1973. Funerals in Ghana. Ghana Bulletin of Theology, 4(5): 17-29.
Rattray, R.S. 1927. Religion and art in Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Secretan, T. 1995. Going into darkness. Fantastic coffins from Africa. London: Thames & Hudson.
Sokolovsky, J. (Ed.) 1990. The cultural context of ageing: worldwide perspectives. New York: Bergin & Garvey.
Teitelbaum, M. 1988. Singing for their supper and other productive work of the African elderly. In: Gon, E. (Ed.) Ageing in cross-cultural perspective. Africa and the Americas. New York: Phelps-Stokes Fund, pp. 61-68.
Van der Geest, S. 1980. The image of death in Akan Highlife songs. Research in African Literatures, 11(2): 145-74.
Van der Geest. S. 1984. Death, chaos and Highlife songs: a reply. Research in African Literatures. 15(4): 583-88.
Van der Geest, S. 1985. Singing against death. Highlife and funerals. Ghana Newsletter. 18/19: 53-67.
Van der Geest, S. 1990. Culturele tranen op begrafenissen in Ghana. In: Van de Klashorst. P. (Ed.) Dodendans. Ontdekkingsreis rond de dood in verschillende culturen. Amsterdam: Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen, pp. 58-71.
Van der Geest, S. 1995. Money's respect: old people in a rural Ghanaian town. Unpublished manuscript.
Vivian, B. 1992. Sacred to secular. Transitions in Akan funerary customs. In: Sterner, J. & David, N. (Eds) An African commitment: paper in honour of Peter Lewis Shinnie. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, pp. 157-67.
Vollbrecht, J.A. 1978. Structure and communitas in an Ashanti village: the role of funerals. Ph.D. thesis. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg.