New Telegraph

Costly burials: Profiting from the dead

The poor cannot afford the prices of these services, says a casket seller

It is often said that death is a necessary end. But, in today’s Nigeria, the social status of a person often reflects in the way such a fellow is buried. This, it seems, has become the motivation for private burial grounds and undertakers in the country, who now invest in funeral homes to profit from the dead, reports ISIOMA MADIKE

The news of his mother’s passing hit Olusegun really hard. As the first son of the deceased, he had to come home from his base in Abuja at short notice to make arrangements for the funeral. Shortly after arriving in Lagos, he went round to inspect the morgues where the corpse would be preserved until burial plans had been finalised. He, however, was shocked to discover the conditions of the stateowned mortuaries.

They were indescribable; overcrowded and largely inefficient. Giving what he saw, he decided immediately that they were not an option. He then decided to inquire about the services of the private funeral homes. However, for him to keep the corpse in the refrigeration unit of one of the privately- owned mortuaries around Ojodu- Berger area of Lagos State, Olusegun had to cough out the sum of N15, 000 daily. In two weeks, the body had incurred a bill of N210, 000 while it cost N75, 000 to embalm it. Casket and burial space for the interment was Olusegun’s other headache.

But, the most troubling was the cemetery. He knew that most public cemeteries are congested, overrun with weeds, short of facilities and usually looted by grave-robbers, who steal valuables from corpses or tamper with body parts for ritual purposes. One of such run-down facilities is the now infamous Atan Cemetery at Yaba in Lagos. Another is the Ikoyi Cemetery, one of the state’s oldest functional graveyards.

They are both in a decrepit state with a pervasive foul stench of exposed graves and human parts strewn all over the dead’s abode. This picture of neglect of the country’s graveyards plus the cut-throat prices of the shoddy services, sent shivers down Olusegun’s spine. However, there is a new site constructed exclusively for the rich that has become a part of the new-look Ikoyi cemetery. But, it does not come cheap. The fees for using that select site range between N250, 000 and N25 million. This is minus burial permits, inscriptions on tombstones and annual maintenance, which equally attract special charges.

A standard plot for burial, complete with weeds, costs N250, 000 while a space in the more elitist section goes between N2.5 and N25 million. There is also the Victoria Court Cemetery (VCC), also in Lagos State. It is the first private burial ground in Nigeria. Though quite expensive, many cannot really put a price on what they call giving a befitting burial to their departed dear ones.

They often argue that no amount is too much to pay for the facilities the private graveyards offer when compared to the state of the public cemeteries where no one is sure of the security of the corpse. Perhaps, it is this dearth of quality services that has spawned a rash of private cemeteries and funeral homes across the country, especially in the “Centre of Excellence”.

This may have been the reason Olusegun opted for one of them. VCC is a scenic graveyard where every corpse would elect to be buried, if they had a say in the choice of a final resting place. Even when the living escort the remains of their deceased loved ones, they often cannot help but stop to savour the serene ambiance of this beautiful cemetery owned by HFP Engineering Limited, an Israeli building and civil engineering construction company. The 25-hectare burial ground, situated in Eputu Village, Ibeju-Lekki Local Council of Lagos State, and constructed in a tranquil environment, is laid on a bed of lush vegetation and luxuriant trees. A church, with several chapels and a mosque convey an added sacred feel to the setting.

There is also a carpenters’ yard and kiosks for snacks and drinks among the features of the cemetery in which the Israeli company is said to have invested over N1 billion. Since the first burial of a Nigerian female oil company employee in 1998, the memorial park has become the toast of many, who are not impressed by the parlous state of most public burial grounds around the country. This discontent of the public with the condition of public graveyards appears to be responsible for HFP Engineering Construction Company’s decision to develop a private cemetery that meets individual and family expectations.

Soon, buying burial vaults in advance became the fad among rich Nigerians. While some see it as a status symbol, others view it otherwise, with a plethora of reasons they prepare their final resting place while alive. The Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, was one of those, who confirmed that he had already paid for a burial vault where he would be interred. Fashola made the declaration on February 22, 2015, after inspecting the site of the cemetery in the Ibeju-Lekki area of the state.

The former governor of Lagos State, who stunned Lagosians with that revelation, had said: “We are here to inspect a cemetery we often don’t like to talk about, but there is a need for it because the population continues to expand and the Lekki sub-region is growing very fast. “We have this strategic partnership now with the private sector and they are going to deliver a cemetery like no other. They will manage it and make the cost also competitive. There will be high, medium and low density vaults for people, who really want to make a statement at their exit.”

He did not stop at that. He added that death is an end that will eventually come and as such people should make preparations in advance. He lamented that most people could not access some of the old cemeteries where their loved ones were buried several years ago, adding that people must plan for their demise the way they plan for success while alive. However, Fashola is not alone in this. Many other men and women of means have acquired their personal vaults. For instance, billionaire businessman and Globacom owner, Dr. Mike Adenuga Jr., had, according to reports, also paid a whopping sum of N200 million to secure a space for his burial spot in a cemetery since 2013. He bought his at the Vaults and Garden, an ultra-modern cemetery in Ikoyi, Lagos, situated beside Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria.

This reporter also gathered that the billionaire’s sister, Mrs. Esther Osunade, who died in 2009, was buried in the most expensive spot at the Vaults and Garden beside one Gboyega, son of another super rich Lagosian. The cemetery, which was opened on October 30, 2006 by former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, has a spot for the rich and another for the “super” rich. A space for the rich costs from N750, 000, while that of the “super” rich costs from N40 million. This portion enjoys a lush lawn, balcony, beautiful gate, garden and more space. MIC Funeral Services boss, Tunji Okusanya, who reportedly bought a space at the Victoria Garden City Cemetery at the whopping cost of N250 million before his death, was buried there.

Okusanya met his sudden death along with his son and four men, who worked for him as pall-bearers in the ill-fated Associated Airline plane, which crashed on October 3, 2014 at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. He was said to have bought, before then, some part of the Ikoyi Cemetery also. This, perhaps, may be a pointer to those who do not know that the opulence that separates the rich from the misery of the poor continues even into the grave. This may also be what the consummate English playwright, William Shakespeare, foresaw when he wittingly created an imagery of the social gap between the rich and the poor.

He said: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes. Just like Shakespeare, Yaakov Chai, former managing director of HFP Engineering, owners of the VCC Cemetery, had confirmed it was opened for services in 1998, and that the company’s services were not for beggars. “What we are offering is a complete deviation from the general cemetery you see around where people bury about six bodies together. This is a private initiative that would allow members of the public to honour their dead ones,” he had said.

As if in competition, other businessmen have taken a cue since then, investing in funeral homes to profit from the dead. For instance, MIC is said to be the owner of the Vault and Garden near the seemingly non-performing Atan Cemetery in Yaba. After a successful spell in the business of undertaking, it decided to give the VCC a run for its money in providing excellent funeral services.

A family who desires a space for its dead at the Vault and Garden may need as much as between N1million and N70 million to actualise the dream. And this, according to findings, excludes the Value Added Tax (VAT) and the cost of other ornaments. The VAT for vault classification is between N50, 000 and N3. 5 million while that of tombstone classification is between N27, 000 and N52, 500.

This is the much a family of any deceased person has to part with to make their loved one rest in peace in the beautiful graves. There is the Single Vault, which costs N1 million; Double Vault (which can accommodate two persons both at the base and upper parts) costs between N2 million and N2.7 million. The Special Medium Vault sells for N10 million while the Special Low Density Vaults are in three categories. Category one is between N20 million and N25 million and category two goes for between N35 million and N40 million. The category three is in a class of its own.

It is like a gated chamber which, besides lodging the dead person, also serves as a place where family members can sit and chat as they look at the pictures of the departed adorning the walls. In later years, any relation of the deceased can be buried within. Its price ranges from N50 million to N70 million. Notwithstanding the fees of the vaults, the prices for tombstone construction are separate. They range from N500, 000 to N1.5 million.

The Double Vault in both marble and granite is more expensive, while blue pearl granite for half slab is about N700, 000 and full slab, N900,000. But, VCC and MIC are not the only ones into this business. They have another competitor in TOS Funerals Limited located at both the Ikeja and Gbagada General Hospitals in Lagos. Although TOS has no cemetery at present, its area is on mortuary services.

Their slogan is to give the dead a dignified and befitting funeral with the claim of providing world-class standard. It was established by Mrs. Taiwo Ogunsola, who doubles as Chief Executive and MD of the company. TOS services range from provision of customised and top range hearses, pallbearers, and brass band, embalmment, storage and funeral arrangements to sale of caskets, decoration of catafalque and condolence tables. This package, of course, comes at an upscale price. According to findings, a Batesville wooden casket cost at least N250, 000. From N350, 000 upwards, one could purchase the steel version, while local wooden ones made to specification go for N100, 000 and more.

However, Omega Funeral Home brings with it a different dynamic. It is a subsidiary of Bemil Securities Limited, which started operations in 2001. It claimed to offer comprehensive funeral undertaking services, including preparation for burials, pallbearers, wreaths, hearses and high quality caskets. It does not have a private memorial park like MIC and VCC at present, but its facility for cremation is one edge it has over the other places. Asians, mostly Indians and the Chinese, are the favoured patrons of this service. Saturday Telegraph also gathered that Omega Funerals perform embalmment of corpses for well over N70, 000, depending on the condition of the corpse and the location while autopsy goes for N120, 000 if there is a police case involved. Their caskets do not come cheap either. For a locally-produced casket, bereaved families would have to cough out about N250, 000 to buy a two-step casket, imbued with flat top and fixed with a bar handle, and lined with silk material and foam. There is also a Semi Dome casket with a fixed bar handle, which costs N380, 000. The priciest is the Royal Cedar Dome fixed with a swing bar handle. It sells for N750, 000. Some of the features that make this casket special are the wood it is made of and the use of velvet material as its lining. According to one of its attendant at the coffin shop, who refused to be named, customers prefer caskets made of mahogany and cedar woods because they are of high quality. “The liking for caskets made with these woods is to show class because not every member of the society can afford to bury their dead in style. Our style of burial is expensive and our target audience is the rich,” he said. The imported variants of caskets in this shop range between N950, 000 and N3 million for the 18 and 20-inch steel gauge coffins while metal types could go for as much as N5.7 million. Besides the prices for the caskets, rich individuals also have to part with a handsome amount for a funeral hearse, pallbearers, mobile music band and transportation. The brands of cars used for the hearse include Volvo, Ford Everest Jeep, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz, Nissan Pathfinder Jeep, R500 4MATIC Benz, Limousine and Lincoln Navigator. The price ranges from N190, 000 to N350, 000. The Benz hearse is the most expensive. For the pallbearers, about N150, 000 is charged per day. The pallbearers consist of six men, who will not only clean the corpse for the burial but also convey the casket to its final resting place. The same amount is charged per day by the saxophonists, drummers and trumpeters (itinerant band), who will fill the environment with ear-soothing songs befitting of a funeral. The transportation fee is usually N120, 000 and could be more, if the distance is farther. Unlike in the past where many communities were once served by small funeral parties, the death-care landscape has, indeed, been transformed by shareholder- driven companies, which in recent times have added the services of professional mourners to their menu. A professional mourner is known as a moirologist. As the name implies, these are individuals, who are paid to attend a funeral to mourn. Even though they don’t know the deceased person, they still express sorrow and often take part in funeral customs. Some people find it hard to cry when their loved-ones die, but wailing and mourning are a big part of funerals in Nigeria, as it is indicative of the deceased’s social standing or how beloved they were by their family and community. So, it’s no wonder that some Nigerians are willing to pay professional mourners to cry on their behalf. Professional mourning is just one small part of the extravagance associated with Nigerian funerals in recent times. Many now spend as much if not more on a funeral as they would on a wedding. Most professional mourners are paid per event, a flat rate for attending the funeral, or by the hour. The price ranges between N25, 000 and N50, 000 per hour, depending on the performance.

However, they are expected to behave less extravagantly, though more theatrical productions are not completely uncommon. They might cry quietly, say a few kind words about the deceased, or even comfort the family. For the most part, these professionals are quiet and respectful. This goes to show that the paraphernalia for a funeral is simply endless.

Yet, it has somewhat become obvious that the cost of burying loved ones is not for those without deep pockets in this clime. The majority of the affluent also consult the undertakers to handle services ranging from embalming, cremation, security, placing of obituary announcements in newspapers to printing of burial posters and programme booklets, catering, renting of canopies, chairs and tables, and the purchase of burial plots. A casket seller on the popular Odunlami Street, Lagos Island, who declined to be named, told this reporter that the poor cannot afford the prices of these services.

National chairman of African Democratic Congress (ADC), Okey Nwosu, said there is nothing wrong with choosing a private or public cemetery to bury one’s loved one. “Where you bury your loved one is a matter of choice. It is not a waste of money if you choose to bury your loved one in a private cemetery, if you have the money,” he said. Cremation is also becoming a big affair in Nigeria, although public awareness of bidding farewell to departed loved ones through cremation is still very low at present in the country. And no conscious effort is being made to create awareness about it because the process does not go down well with the Nigerian culture.

However, a complete cremation, according to investigations, involves a two-step process that takes two to three hours. The first exposes the corpse to intense heat and flame after which what remains is mostly ash except for some bone fragments. Then, the entire ash and fragment volume are gathered and run through a processor, to create a uniform powder-like texture.

Thereafter, what is left is preserved in an urn, a vase used in ancient times for preserving the ashes of the dead after incineration. This service costs about N250, 000, besides the urn, which cost N25, 000. However, proponents of the technique argue that it is less expensive than conventional internment. Proponents of cremation note that unlike burial, one does not need to take up valuable land space. They equally say that the process is environment friendly.

But this has not impressed environmental experts. For instance, John Nwandu, is worried that excessive gas that is employed in the course of burning, releases carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. “It is hard to imagine how Nigerians are getting accustomed to this new way of burying the dead,” he added. Despite all these, well-wishers are expected to be fed for several weeks prior to funerals and beyond. Many would report to the bereaved family’s home daily as early as possible for this purpose. There are those who would also complain that drinks bought were too small and that the ones served did not go round.

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