Continuity and Change in the Funeral Culture of the Umuna People in Nigeria from Pre-Colonial Times to 2000 A.D.

Author:Okpalaeke, Patrick Chukwudike


Burial and funeral practices, the world all over, remains an age long phenomenon, cutting across various societies irrespective of race or geographical location. Funeral practices, as a matter of fact constitute itself a fundamental element of cultural heritage practice by all and sundry from ancient to contemporary times. However, a critical point to note herein would be that in spite of the fact that funeral practices has continually remain a universal common, the patterns by which societies conducted their own prior to colonial intrusion seem variegated (Jefferson & Skinner 1974:78-80) owing to societal belief system passed down from one generation unto another.

Therefore, in a typical pre--colonial Igbo society, funeral practices is taken very seriously based on the belief by the Igbo that it is through proper burial and funeral rites that a spirit is properly sent into the abode of the ancestors where it is culturally assumed that the dead solicit on the behalf of the living in numerous issues of life, especially when the deceased is either a renowned warrior, a well celebrated ofor title holder, a chief priest, or even an old man (Okafor 2016 & Achebe 2008: 97). Achebe (2008), in his classic, Things Fall Apart, gave a lucid picture of how funeral rites were mostly conducted in a typical pre-colonial Igbo society when he espouses thus:

... now and again a full-chested lamentation rose above the wailing whenever a man came into the place of death... At last the man was named and people sighed 'E-u-u, Ezeudu is dead'... the land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors. [96-8] Thus, given the foregone background, the people of Umuna in Okigwi Division prior to the intrusion of colonialism, no doubt, had their own unique ways by which they conducted their own burial and funeral rites whenever a member of their community ascend into the afterlife. Notably, the people of Umuna stratified their funeral practices into four classes as according to legends, a man's dealings and class in life will to a large extent determined his burial and funeral rites when he dies.

Hence, this study seeks to reconstruct a history on the continuity and change that exist in burial and funeral culture among the Umuna people of Okigwi Divison from pre-colonial times to 2000 A.D. The study, however, took a panoramic view on how colonialism and its handmaidens such as missionary activities, western education, among others truncated the rich cultural values of the people and replace them with alien culture. Collaborating the foregone statement, John Origi (2011) avers that:

The changes that have been occurring in Igbo society since the genesis of British imperialism gained greater momentum after the Aro Expedition (1901-1902), when the colonial frontier expanded to encompass entire southeastern Nigeria. [161] In order to accomplish these goals, the study is divided into six sections to help bring the work to life. The first is the introduction which gives a background to the study. The second section takes a critical examination of the origin, migration and settlement patterns of Umuna people. Whereas the third section reports the trends and patterns of funeral practices in pre-colonial Umuna community. The fourth attempts a survey of how some of the agents of change such as missionary activities, and generally colonial rule affected funeral practice in Umuna community. The fifth brings to bear how funeral ceremony is now practice in post-colonial Umuna. Finally, the last section concludes the study.

Umuna: Origin, Migration and Settlement Patterns

Tracing the origin, migration and settlement patterns of any group of Igbo people have always been an onerous task giving the fact that there exist a paucity in documentary evidences stating sufficient details on the history of the group. These challenges are further exacerbated on the ground that the history of the Igbo people is somewhat shredded in mystery and has prompted a plethora of variegated versions of origin of various Igbo communities. In addition, these complexities have continually remain a very interesting point of debate among scholars of Igbo history. Take for instance, on a broader scale, scholars such as Afigbo, Isichei, Uchendu, among others, have through their various studies posit strongly that a primary core of Igbo origin can be trace to the Niger-Benue confluence area, and Nri-Akwa axes, and Isuama-Orlu-Owerri-Okigwe zones (Okpalaeke & Usoro 2017: 31-40). Their submissions point to the fact that the Igbo people never migrated from the Orient or Egypt as had been suggested by scholars such as G.T Basden and M.D. Jeffereys. These Eurocentric scholars favoured strongly that the Igbo people must have come down all the way from the Orient based on the vast similitudes that exist in their cultural practices, which seem familiar to those found among the Orient dwellers. Afigbo surmised these challenges by stating that studying the history of Igbo people is like attempting to tie sands with a rope (ibid).

In spite of these challenges, history has it that Umuna origin can be trace to a man known as Una, whom according to the legend had migrated all the way from Uturu, (Chukwulebe 1956) a community situated in present day Abia state in Nigeria. Up till this day, the people of Umuna and Uturu never inter-marry as they are considered as blood relations (Okpalaeke 2017) often called Onye Umune, when translated denotes "My Relation".

Una was said to have migrated out of Uturu owing to many reasons which chiefly among those reasons was to avoid the incessant quarrels which often more than not brew inter-community wars that came with grave consequences for all and sundry across Uturu in ancient times. In pre-colonial era, Igbo societies, irrespective of the size or location, engaged in series of internecine wars in order to resolve their outstanding disagreements. G.T. Basden (1983) in discussing the frequency of warfare in a typical pre-colonial society avers that:

it was a rare thing for towns to remain at peace for a very long [time], and when quietness did happen to prevail for a time, the spell was broken on the slightest pretext and hostilities began again forthwith... during the dry season, fighting was a sort of pastime, either between different quarters of the same town or between neighboring towns. [202] Though, it should be noted that the intent of war during that period was never to annihilate or to wrought total destruction on one another, as notice of warfare were announced; and series of negotiations employed to possibly avert war. Should it gets to war, a period when the war should be fought was also set aside in order to prevent famine. Thus, wars were fought mostly during dry seasons and not planting period (Isichei 1976).

Whatever be the case, Una, whom was reported to have been a kind-hearted and peaceful young man, who disdained violence, secretly embarked on a voyage passing through the Imo River after several days of sojourning through wide forest. Una, the key progenitor of present Umuna people, settled down at a remote piece of land in a bid to avoid any sort of inter-tribal conflict which often existed around regions closer to bigger communities which were close to the Imo River. The first land which Una settled down is today referred to as Uhiowere (Chukwulebe 1956:5).

After settling down in Uhiowere, Una in order to survive embarked on agricultural practices such as farming and hunting. He carried out these activities with his crude implements which consisted of clubs, swords, bows and arrows, knives among other items, and he chose Orie day as the most suitable for his hunting expedition. Upon realizing his need for a helper, Una took up a wife called Lolo, the daughter of a well-respected man called Agnuhruh Nkwuh, a native of Umulolo. Up till this day, the Umuna people are sometimes called "Umunlolo-Agnuhru-nkwuh," as traces of relationship between the Umuna people and Umulolo subsist in...

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