Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Keeping Up with the Boatengs

April 19th, 2011 · 4 Comments

Who among us doesn’t enjoy a tale of humanity laughing in the face of death? And so a zillion eyeballs were understandably drawn to this entertaining New York Times‘ account of the massive parties that Ghanaian expatriates throw when a loved one back home meets his or her Maker. This admirably raucous tradition is a staple of Ghanaian life, as well as a frequent topic of fascination for foreign journalists. But is Ghana’s infatuation with lavish funerals economically unwise, to the point that government intervention is merited? A Ghanaian activist makes the case here:

The annoying part of the whole drama is the fact that in some communities in Ghana funeral donations are compulsory fees that must be paid by all citizens of such communities, whether they are in town or whether they live abroad. One of such communities is where I come from. If a citizen fails to pay the prescribed compulsory funeral fee, that citizen forfeits his or her right to have a proper funeral when he or she dies. This means that citizens who stay abroad, or who live far away in some parts of Ghana have to make some arrangements for members of their families in town to pay on their behalf all funeral fees in respect of the funerals of all people who die in the town or village. However in all these communities that include my own, there are no “health care committees” that collect “health care fees” to help provide care for people who are ill and need medical care that is beyond their individual capabilities. When one considers the way we cherish dead in Ghana and spend thousands and millions of cedis on funeral while we never care as much about the millions of living Ghanaians who are poor and old who need our care, including health care, one wonders whether Ghanaians have any sense of value and priority.

Ghana is hardly alone in debating whether the human tendency toward one-upmanship needs to be reined in through regulation. The Afghan government is currently considering placing limits on the cost and scope of weddings, under the theory that too many young men and women are remaining unwed because their families have been priced out of marriage-party industry.

The flipside to this debate, of course, is that lavish affairs cause significant economic activity. When The Economist wrung its hands over Ghana’s funerals four years ago, a reader replied with a salient point:

As far as I can see there is a free burials-market in Ghana, where people interested in a lavish funeral can access it. This activity employs many people (pall-bearers, coffin makers, professional mourners, music bands, caterers, house painters, beer makers, T-shirt makers, bus drivers, etc.) With an unemployment rate of 20%, it seems that funeral services, as a voluntary market in an industry that help employ many Ghanaians, has distributive effects and improves efficiency. It is a device to signal family reputation (and helps surviving family members in their networking, political and business endeavors).

I think the last point is the most interesting—that funerals, weddings, and other social rituals serve a purpose beyond just flaunting one’s influence and wealth. But how does one calculate the economic impact of the social exchanges made in these environments? That is the sort of economic research I’d like to see more of—and would be happy to conduct on my own, if it involves attending events like this.

(Image via Ghana-Net.com)


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    There’s also the question of whether employing so many people in the funeral business is really the best way to be employing them. From a purely economic point of view, I’m going to guess no. It’s kind of like the argument that in terms of stimulus, it’s better to pay to have people digging and filling in holes than to have them unemployed. But if you can have them building roads instead, that’s a much more efficient use of money and labor.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: To riff off your point a little bit, the Economist readers seem to make some errors in terms of how “free” this particular market is. As noted in the critical commentary I quote from in the post, compulsory fees are extracted from all community members, regardless of whether or not they wish to participate in this tradition. How much capital is thus being taken away from ventures that (as you note) could provide more lasting economic benefit?

    I guess part of this comes down to how you quantify the value of certain professions. What line of work provides more value to society, running a florist shop or running, say, a grocery store? How do you even begin to make that calculation? (I say this as a writer and journalist, whose economic value to society is probably as small as they come.)

  • re-re

    Thanks for having an eye for good pictures! But this picture (Fantasy Coffins) is coyright by Ghana-net.com !

    I expect, a backlink or you take our image down!


  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @re-re: Thank you for letting me know, and apologies. Links now provided.