Home Burials, Church Graveyards and Public Cemeteries: Transformation in Ibadan Mortuary Practice, 1853-1960
The issue of death and burial was, and still is, important in Ibadan as in other Yoruba communities. Previous scholarship on the introduction of Christianity to Yorubaland has emphasized the theme of “clash of cultures,” but this paper goes beyond clashes and tensions to explore negotiations and compromises, especially those made in mortuary practices. Ibadan history dates from the nineteenth century, when it was founded as a military camp in 1829. From there, it grew to be the most powerful Yoruba state. Its capital, Ibadan, was a cosmopolitan center that attracted fortune seekers from other parts of Yorubaland and even beyond. Ibadan had no oba (king), and therefore no cult of royalty, but was ruled by a military oligarchy in the nineteenth century. It retained many aspects of Yoruba culture, particularly those concerned with mortuary practice. Although we have no direct figures for the nineteenth century, it is fair to assume that death rates were significantly higher than those in the opening years of the twentieth century. This was due to several reasons. First were the incessant wars fought by Ibadan from the 1830s to 1893. Ibadan, as an aggressor state, had little respite from wars with sometimes-high casualties. Added to these were regular outbreaks of civil strife, which also claimed lives. There were also periodic outbreaks of epidemics like smallpox and cholera. Infant mortality was high, and occasional fire outbreaks in a community of thatched huts left many dead. Compared to other Yoruba communities, it would appear that Ibadan experienced more than a fair share of deaths. Christianity was introduced to Ibadan in 1853 and despite the fact that it made few inroads in the community, it immediately instituted its own burial practices. Colonial rule, imposed on Ibadan in 1893, also came with its own blueprints for burial in the twentieth century, planning elaborate public cemeteries. This paper argues that the eventual popularity of the idea of the cemetery among the Christian community is due to the religious privatization of the graveyard through a Christian discourse, whereas colonial cemeteries remained distinctly secular and “public,” far removed from personal and domestic engagements and impervious to any form of privatization. This brings into relief the “public” versus “private” debate and also underlines popular irritation at what was perceived as the intrusive policies of the colonial authorities. This paper starts by examining traditional Yoruba beliefs about death and the practice of home burial in nineteenth- century Ibadan. It then proceeds to discuss the mortuary practices of early Christians and the significance of a “proper” Christian burial. The efforts of colonial authorities to set up public cemeteries as well as the local response are juxtaposed in the following section. The last part of this paper reviews the socio-cultural impact of these changing practices.