By Jude Atupulazi and Mercy Hill
Long before now, the Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, His Lordship, Most Rev Paulinus Ezeokafor, had been championing the call against expensive funeral ceremonies in Anambra State and even took the bull by the horns by issuing directives against it in his Diocese. But following the passage of the Bill against expensive funerals by the Anambra State House of Assembly, recently, Fides sought the views of the Bishop on that epochal development and to also ascertain how the Church will key into it, despite already taking action.
In this interview with Fides editor-in-chief, Jude Atupulazi, and Mercy Hill, Bishop Ezeokafor bares his mind on the development.
Last week the Anambra State House of Assembly passed a bill that will checkmate expensive funerals in the state. What have you to say about this; you being one of the pioneers of the call?
Well, in the first place, I think I am very happy with the Anambra State House of Assembly members for really feeling with the people. Because the origin of this crusade, as rightly mentioned, came up after my mother's funeral, which was in 2013. And in the preparations, there were many things people were talking about. One is still vivid in my mind. Someone told me he wanted to provide me canopies with air-condition for the entertainment of visitors and as he was describing it, I asked him how much it would take. He replied four million Naira. Four million Naira that people will use to eat just one day for my mother's burial? And it was the next day we went to Peter University. So, I told him if he could offer me that four million Naira he promised for entertainment for my mother's burial so I could use it for Peter University. Believe me, the money never came. But he was prepared to use it for entertainment for my mother's burial, but not prepared to invest it for the future of our children.
So, watching all these things, and all the demands and expectations, financing my mother's burial cost nothing. But I knew that we needed it to better those who are alive. Some people go to the extent of collecting loans just to perform burial rites and those alive keep suffering. So, looking at all these events side by side, I understood that when people die, we can't even differentiate between mourners and those celebrating. It then occurred to me that it was the responsibility of the Church, as prophets, to direct society aright, tell them about the right things to do, and when we fail to do that, society may derail completely.
So, I am starting with the Catholic Church, because it is the original church and should be able to lead by example. We started with the souvenirs. We shortened the brochures that most times look like a thesis. I have seen a burial brochure with almost six hundred pages and you need to see the way people get distracted struggling to get brochures, even during mass. I have had experiences in masses where people drag brochures and end up leaving it there after the mass. So, what is the need? All we need for the dead is to pray for them and the booklet for the dead is there, the Church ritual. Why then struggle for brochures?
I have spoken to the priests in the Diocese, because it is said that charity begins at home. Once you are at a funeral, no cooking in the parish for the Priests, because our coming is to condole with the bereaved and not add to their sorrow by incurring costs and debts.
Some resisted and started comparing. But it is easy if you want to practice it. Most times I travel far in my car. All I do is pack things I need in a lunch box and when you get hungry you eat. The same way, if you are going for a funeral, put something in your car and when you are hungry, you go back and eat. If you want to do entertainment, wait for house warming parties, wedding celebrations and others, but the issue of death should be different.
What is your response to critics who may not be in support of the bill?
If you have wealth, help people when they are alive. The issue of consumerism is what is killing our people. There were critics who believed that it's at funerals that some poor people eat and they complained that the Bishop wanted to stop their opportunity of eating. But I said to them, 'Have we been hungry before the death? Why then wait to eat when it's someone's funeral?'
They were so many arguments from the generality of the people. Especially when I raised the matter in my parish pastoral council some time ago. Some wealthy ones kicked against it saying it was an occasion for those who had to give. I replied, 'If you have, give them when they are alive. So many people renovate their houses or build new ones when people die and I am sure that if the person is given a chance to come back to life, he may not believe his eye. So instead of spending on ashebi and other frivolities, use the money and time to lessen the problems of those alive. So, I thank the House of Assembly for this.
So how would you execute it, now that the bill has been passed?
Well, I think that there is a committee already set up to see to the implementation. All we are waiting for is for the governor to sign and if he doesn't sign, but I believe he will; if he doesn't, I will follow him until he does that. Because all these things are implemented to help the people.
Meanwhile parishes in this Diocese have started implementing it, regulating their spending with regard to burials. No one said it's bad to give befitting burials, but you can make souvenirs; a simple card that people keep somewhere and use it to pray for the dead. I thank the house for giving a duration for burials. It will also be implemented in the Church.
So, this change made is just like the Church and the government working together for the good of the people and the end point is to make sure that people will have less burden which are only man-made creations.
In what ways can the Church enforce this?
The Church has its own arrangement. What we agreed on is already being enforced, so the pastors in various parishes are aware and they will try to enforce and convince the people who will like it.
Can you go beyond asking priests not to cook at the funeral of their family members by including the lay faithful too?
It depends on what we have for our own. Like I said before, we have concluded on that. We are now working on the funeral for the other members of the family. For the bill, cooking was included. We will take everything they have said but can still add ours and insist that way, because if the government is a little bit lenient, we will toe our own line only for Catholics. And if you believe, you do what is required.
Some see this bill as punitive against the poor, because of the N100, 000 fine. How do you see the penalty?
I was surprised because, I have a copy of it. I almost thought it was one million Naira. However, if a member of the Catholic Church defaults, the Church will come with her own penalty. Ours will not be fine, because anyone can pay fine.
What will be the penalty for defaulters?
(Laughs) The Church will try to distribute copies of the Bill to all parishioners, encouraging them to study it. Then warn them that if they go contrary to what is there, the Church will bring out her own sanctions which will be different from that of the state. But I am sure that the faithful will adhere because there is no wisdom in doing the wrong things. This Bill is for the good of everyone and should be implemented.