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COVID-19: We’re struggling for survival as mourners now bury their

Tope Omogbolagun

Ile lo lo tarara (literally meaning heaven is his abode)” was the sound of the trumpet blasting when Pa James Adigun was being buried early February 2020.

It was a beautiful procession of children, grandchildren and extended family members as they gaily walked singing and dancing with different vehicles following them.

Leading the procession were beautiful pallbearers carrying the dead while displaying diverse dance steps.  It was a sight to behold and onlookers nearly doubled the celebrants.

Beyond the joy and colourful appearances of family members, pallbearers are known to also add life to funerals. They just don’t carry the dead but do it beautifully in such a way that makes the dead honorable even in death.

One of the children of the late Adigun who spoke to our correspondent said, “My dad lived well and I am glad we were able to give him a befitting burial. He doesn’t deserve anything less than what we did. I am grateful for the way it turned out. People really turned out to bid him final farewell.

“The funeral service guys really impressed me. The pallbearers really did well but it comes at a cost. But I believe that everything they billed us for was worth it.”

Nigerians are cultural and this reflects in the way they celebrate parties especially funerals. For long, burying the dead often comes with several ceremonies especially among those from the southern states in the country. Funerals especially for the elderly are usually well celebrated.  In some cases, people spend three days celebrating their dead. Lagos year in Anambra State, the state House of Assembly passed a Burial/Funeral Control Bill to stop expensive funerals in the state. The bill now makes it an offence to hold funerals for more than one day in the state.  Before the passage of the bill, communities held funerals for at least three days.

No doubt, funeral service providers and pall bearers popularly known as undertakers are among those who make the burials memorable.

Anyone who attends a burial graced by these special service providers always has some memories to treasure for a long time. From the procession to the acrobatic dances to while carrying corpses in fanciful caskets, it’s always a beautiful sight.

But for some time, the spectacle has ebbed with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some lost their loved ones to coronavirus thereby making it difficult for any elaborate funeral.

Those who lost their loved ones to natural deaths during the period had to embalm their bodies at the morgue until the lockdowns were eased. This situation undoubtedly affected operators in the funeral services industry.

One of such them is the boss of Rayproof funeral services, Raymond Pedro, who has been in the business for over 25 years.

Pedro said in those years he has never experienced a lull in activities as it was in 2020 when the pandemic started.

He said, “I have been doing this business for over 25 years and something like this has never happened. I don’t think anyone ever foresaw that a thing like this would ever happen.”

COVID-19, an unexpected guest

Pedro stated that in his entire time of being in the business of funeral services, he never knew that a time would come when people would not be able to bury their dead for months.

“I never knew a time like this will come that we will not hold a burial in a week, not to talk of months. It was a difficult time for every one of us in this business. I have never been this broke. It was tough but we thank God that we saved for rainy days.

“Different businesses are usually affected from time to time based on economic reasons. But somehow people would still look for a way to do parties especially burials. In this part of the world, people often pay the last respects to their dead in pleasant ways. I guess that explains why we usually have ceremonial parties.”

Pedro noted that COVID-19 shook the world which according to him showed God’s supremacy. Many states also restricted mass gatherings for funerals and reduced attendees.

Also, Mr Saheed Akintunde of Ebony Funeral Services said he never thought a pandemic would emerge to disrupt funeral business in Nigeria.

He said, “We never saw this coming.  I have been in the business for over 20 years. It was really tough on us. People were not burying their dead so that even affected the casket sales.”

Akintunde noted that it had never been so bad to the extent of affecting casket sales.

“This COVID-19 is so dynamic in its way, people weren’t even buying caskets because there were no burials. The corpses were embalmed. It was a season that really shook our industry. Even inflation has never hit us this bad before.”

On his part, the boss of Funeral Plus who identified himself only as Boye said the COVID-9 pandemic was not a child’s play as it affected everything globally.

He stated, “The COVID-19 pandemic was something that shocked us and gave us a big blow. Beyond the health effect of it, it also affected people financially. It was really a tough one.”

For the Head of Operations, Omega Funeral Home, Anuoluwapo Ahmed, coronavirus has a negative effect on their business. According to him, many who fixed the period for burials postponed them.

He said, “Coronavirus had a negative impact on our business. When it was recorded in Nigeria, people postponed funerals. Also, people who were supposed to pay for embalmment delayed doing so. Most of them were trying to manage what they had. Many people have yet to recover from the financial burden caused by COVID-19.”

Coping strategies

As much as nobody saw coronavirus coming, some of the funeral service providers were able to look for ways to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic on the industry was huge. Some were totally grounded especially those offering undertaking services while funeral homes and casket sellers struggle to survive.

Also, Pedro said there was no job to do during the lockdown and he stayed at home to survive on what he had.

Pedro said, “The COVID-19 pandemic affected people globally and we in the funeral sector are no exception. When something like this happens, we just have to live.

“We thank God for the grace he has given us to hold on and be able to sustain ourselves during the COVID-19 lockdown. We condole with people who lost their loved ones and we pray to God to give them the fortitude to bear the loss. The government told us not to do burials. We have not done any.’’

On his part, Akintunde said he was able to do a small business, noting that it wasn’t comparable to what he always handled before the pandemic started.

He said, “Those who did their burials had small gatherings and bought ordinary coffins. They didn’t employ our other services or that of the pallbearers. It’s difficult for us. Also, the issue of the interstate ban affected us deeply. Rather than the regular service that we offer, we usually offer other five to six services to people during burials. The only one we did was the sale of caskets.

“Before COVID-19 pandemic came, on an average, we had about four to six burials per week, but then we got little or nothing. As a business person, we really experienced setbacks.

“We did a few COVID-19 burials, which weren’t in any way lucrative. All we did was to carry the corpses from the morgue to the cemetery but before then, we had to disinfect the bodies. We didn’t charge more for the few burials we did during the COVID-19 lockdown. It was typically the general price list that we gave. We only included money for the things that we needed to move like the corpse.”

For Omega homes, they were able to do embalmment during the lockdown.  Ahmed said, “Normally, people bring in their dead for embalmment. We demand the death certificates to know the cause of death. People kept their dead for longer periods. The first thing we do when a body is brought to is to disinfect the body and the ambulance. Also, family members who bring bodies for embalmment are also compelled to use hand sanitisers, while their movements are restricted within the premises.”

According to Boye of Funeral Plus, the firm was out of business during the early period of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Boye said, “It was when the lockdown was eased that we started to offer few services like non-ceremonial burials. We only help to transport the corpses and bury them.”

The brighter side

Many of the funeral homes said they had chosen to look at the bright side, hoping that business would pick up fully soon despite still coping with the effects of the pandemic.

Globally, cases of coronavirus have increased in some countries such as Turkey, US, Philippines among others with millions killed. The virus has also affected several sectors worldwide.

The TOS man said that business had started to pick up, adding that there were still some things to contend with.

He said, “There are still restrictions but burials have gone back to normal.  We hope that everything will return to normal soon. Burial always depends on how much people are willing to pay for their dead. Some are cheap, some expensive. There is no package that family members of a deceased person want that we will not provide.”

Besides, Pedro told our correspondent that though things appeared to be picking up in the sector, things weren’t the same. He said, “We are still going through a lot. But we thank God. Before the pandemic, we usually held six to seven burials in a week but now we now do like two or three funerals in a week.”

Pedro noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had taught them to “Be our brother’s keepers and show love to each other.”

Akintunde noted that things were gradually easing up and there was no one size-fits-all in caring for the dead. He said, “COVID-19 taught me the power of self-discipline.”

For Boye, there’s a wide margin between what they made pre-COVID-19 and during the period, adding “But we are grateful that things are gradually picking up.”

Despite the easing of the lockdown, there are still guidelines on burials by the government to ensure the safety of the citizens.

In the guidelines, those holding marriages, naming ceremonies and burials must take cognisance of social distancing and other related COVID-19 protocols with a maximum of 50 people.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control stated, “Physical distancing should be taken into cognisance in all religious interactions while COVID-19 lasts i.e. two meters distance horizontally and vertically. All safety measures must be put in place (first aid boxes, fire extinguishers, emergency exits and muster points).

“Digital thermometers must be available to check the temperature of all worshippers and ensure that it is not above 37.50 C before allowing entry into place of worship or before commencement of Jumat.”

Burying the dead amid COVID-19

After the lifting of the interstate lockdown, people have started holding parties including burying their dead.

One of such people who buried their dead was the families of the late Pa Johnson Awe who died on September 19, 2020. The family members said he was kept in the mortuary for about two weeks before he was finally laid to rest.

One of his granddaughters and lawyer, Oluwadunsin Adebayo, who spoke to our correspondent, said her grandfather led a fulfilled life at 96.

She added that he still played earlier in the day before he went to sleep and gave up the ghost.

She said they hired the services of a party planner who handled the burial to make it a smooth event.

She said, “All our family members were present at the burial except for those who were outside the country and couldn’t travel down so they had a livestream on Zoom. We first had the lying-in-state and wake keep in Ibadan, Oyo State, where some of his friends, especially members of his tennis club came to pay homage to him.

“They all moved close to his body, one after the other with their face masks and their hands sanitised before entering. We then moved his body to his hometown where we had a wake, funeral service and internment.”

According to her, tried to keep to the COVID-19 guidelines.

Adebayo added, “During the church service, we all washed our hands before entering the auditorium and thereafter, we used sanitisers for everyone and distributed face masks. We later held the reception at an open field. We couldn’t use a hall because of COVID-19. But I’m sure we had a successful funeral for our grandpa and we are thankful to God for it.”

Like the Awes, the families of Alhaji Oseni Kadiri, also had to bury their father aged 86 at his residence in Ikorodu area of Lagos State.

According to the son, Mr Yusuf Adigun, their dad was buried according to Islamic rites the following morning with adherence to the guidelines on COVID-19 burials.

Adigun said their family members attended the burial and a date fixed for the final party. He said, “Muslims are naturally not loud on burials. We usually bury the corpse almost immediately and then fix a date for remembrance and prayers. These can be within 41 days but with the state of the nation, we are still holding on regarding fixing a date. We only had the Islamic clerics and family members around during the burial.”

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