The grave robbers
By Reuben Abati

I once watched a Nigerian-made video film, Diamond Ring, in which a young man and his friends, raided a casket in the cemetery and stole a piece of jewellery from the dead. The dead whose peace had been disturbed (acted by delectable Liz Benson) took offence and in line with the African belief that the dead are potently present with extra-ordinary powers, began to torment the young man. He fell ill, making his parents so desperate. But as luck would have it, a gifted grandmother manages to decipher the source of the young man's agony, the stolen item is traced and returned, the dead is propitiated and he recovers from his illness.

It is a strong moral tale about theft, dishonesty, family values and also a cultural statement on the African chain of being, that is the inter-connectedness of the worlds of the living, the dead and the unborn. Art is forever imitating life and vice versa, even if art is long and life is so short as the poet tells us. I have found the story narrated in this movie, being acted out in real life, and it is not amusing at all. It is a kind of dark comedy in which man is exposed in his most vulnerable shape.

In the ThisDay newspaper of August 19, 2005, for example, such a story is told about how a man was arrested by the police in Benue state following attempts by a group of persons to rip open the tomb of late Senator Joshua Adagba "in order to steal the casket in which he was buried." We are told: "The casket believed to have cost about N1. 5 m, attracted the robbers because of the gold plaiting attached to it...The incident happened 48 hours after the late Senator was buried at Daura Jato in Gwer Local Government area". In fact, during the Senator's burial, some persons had asked to be given the keys to the casket, and when it was obvious that there were plans to invade the grave, a surveillance team had to be set up resulting in the arrest of the man in question.

The traditional attitude towards death among Africans is one of reverence, the dead is considered a spirit, and an ancestor also, present at every family meeting, acting as observer at the gathering of the living and as their intercessor in the world beyond. Thus, the dead remain among the living, as a higher being, and for this reason, it is a taboo to seek to violate the dead either by raiding the grave or by violating his or her memory. Whoever violates this defined code is sanctioned (through the payment of a fine or the conduct of rituals) or is condemned by the community. In many of the transitional, modernising societies in Africa, this sacred relationship with the dead is giving way to a certain form of defiance. The dead no longer invite respect nor do they fill us with the twin feelings of pity and fear. Poverty in particular has changed our social notions of death and dying. Death has become one of those over-rationalised victims of the process of modernisation. It is poverty for example, not disrespect that drives the grave robbers. When a poor man who has not been able to feed his family or pay school fees, sees a dead person in a more privileged situation, in expensive clothes, packed in an imported, gold-plaited casket, he thinks of how all that wealth, taken away from the dead, who has no use for it, can benefit the living. The economic situation of the living in Nigeria is so bad that even people now openly envy the dead.

To cite yet another example, the burial of Dr Mike Adenuga 's mother in the week that just ended is perhaps the most elaborate, most colourful, most intimidating event of its type that has ever been staged on this side of the African continent. One fellow saw the photographs of the deceased's burial place and proclaimed that the mausoleum looked better than the house where he and his family live. He said he felt like dying if that would suddenly make him as privileged and as rich. Something obviously has gone wrong with that society where the living openly envy the dead. On many occasions, there have been reports of how in the event of a vehicle accident on any of our expressways, the first persons to arrive on the scene may not necessarily think of assisting the wounded or call for help, instead, they are more likely to start looting, including searching through the pockets and bags of the dead! In the midst of other people's tragedy, some Nigerians see opportunities for theft.

The cemetery, which is supposed to be a hallowed place, is not safe either. These days, families take extra steps to protect the casket. As the casket is being lowered, a stand by group of bricklayers is supposed to swing into action, to fill the grave with sand and hard concrete, and then seal off the grave to present any access to the treasures below the ground. I have served as supervisor/observer at more than two of such events. Even cemetery attendants recommend that this should be done. In Lagos, graves are opened up not by archaeologists in search of hidden secrets as in Egypt, but by thieves who are targeting either the casket or body parts. Thus the sociology of death is a reflection of the desperation in the Nigerian society. The dead no longer rest in piece; they are disturbed by the living dead.

However the problem that is identified here is limited for the most part to Christian burials. It is Christians who keep their dead in the mortuary for days even months, or a whole year in some cases. Moslems bury their dead within 24 hours. It is also Christians who spend so much money on caskets and fill them with worldly treasures thus inviting the living to envy the dead. Moslems bury their dead modestly, and the dead is sent off with only a shroud. There may be need for a review of the Christian culture of death and burials, a call for modesty rather than a loud display of affluence, a change in the public culture of death and corpse disposal. Those who have embraced the option of cremation also need not fear the grave robber. Cremation is usually a solemn ceremony, and there is nothing to steal. Given the increasing non-availability of land for the building of cemeteries, cremation may in the future become a popular choice.

Grave robbers obviously forget the democracy of death: it is a certain destiny that is shared by all humanity; it reminds us of the equality of all beings. It is not ignorance that inspires persons to steal from the temple of the dead, but poverty and desperation. They see the ritual of burial as less important than the rest of us think. Their disrespect is in itself a protest against social conventions, a reaction against society and its dominant mores. With this, they claim victory over the same circumstances that make them appear inferior to the dead. They have lowered the cemetery and the solemnity of burial, and turned both arenas into a theatre of banality and a reflection of the turbulence in our lives.