Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Celebrate Life

Celebrate Life of Emeka

Friday and Saturday afternoon in California were heavy and sad for us. How could we celebrate life?

Prior to celebration of life

Our family at graveside, Chinaku with Nonso, Beth with Emeka’s friend Kai.

We were there for the funeral of Clem’s nephew Emeka who had been killed 51 days earlier. Friday afternoon we’d been at the funeral home for the viewing of Emeka’s body with our daughter Beth who had come from Philadelphia. Our older son Chinaku was coming from Nigeria.

The funeral was on Saturday. Clem, Beth, and I went together to the funeral home. I was wondering how we could celebrate life on the same day!

Chinaku, Emeka’s best friend, wasn’t yet there. His flight from Abuja to Lagos had been cancelled the day before, so he had missed his Lufthansa flight to Los Angeles.

His car pulled up at the funeral home as we were going into the chapel. That was such a relief; I didn’t see how we could proceed without him.

Before celebration of life

Emeka’s good friend and mentee Benjamin Anozie and his wife at graveside

Chinaku sat beside Monica, his arm around her, during the funeral. Beth read a lesson, using the Gideon bible we’d borrowed from the hotel room.

After the funeral service, we all went to the adjoining cemetery for the burial. I was surprised that we were dismissed before the body was lowered into the ground, though most guests stayed around to watch from a distance.

Clem and I were so struck by the difference between this and his father’s burial in the village, in their compound. There, three or four men dug the grave with ordinary shovels, then held the ropes as they lowered the body in its casket into the grave. Then they shoveled the dirt back in.

At Emeka’s burial, after the guests were told to move away, a forklift came to lower the casket. A truck brought a load of dirt and emptied it beside the grave. Then a bulldozer pushed most of the dirt in.

Another piece of equipment with a shovel-like arm tried to finish the job. The last few scoops of dirt were shoveled in by men who had been standing around most of the time.

Celebrate life, not death

Three major pieces of heavy equipment to bury the casket.

The six men could have finished the whole job with just their shovels in less time than it took the machines! Amazing.

When the burial was over we adjourned to a nearby hall to celebrate life. And celebrate we did!

After lots of tributes, the DJ put on Nigerian highlife music. There were three separate processions, each led by someone carrying Emeka’s photo. It had been displayed earlier at the funeral home and by the grave.

First came a group of ten from Nri, Emeka’s town, the home town of his father. Others joined them on the dance floor.

Second was a group of several women who had been students of Monica, Emeka’s mother, when she was a teacher and then principal at a secondary school in Eastern Nigeria. They had known Emeka when he was a child. Again we joined.

Celebration of life in process

Nonso and her son leading our dancing

We  – the immediate family – formed the third group. Nonso, Emeka’s sister, and Edozie, his brother, led. Then came Nonso’s children, then Clem and I and our children. Celebration of life indeed!

Mama’s Story Part 3

I’ve told you that Papa’s family had done the ceremony to seal the engagement with Mama’s family.

As you read further, you’ll find Papa, his father and many other relatives and friends, men and women, coming to finalize the marriage.

The agreed-upon bride price consisted of six containers of palm wine, a male goat, two chickens, a dozen yams, and an amount of money. Five musicians accompanied the group. The women carried the calabashes of palm wine and other items.

The bride’s family had a number of their relatives and friends present for the igba nkwu, or wine-carrying. But the bride herself was not visible when the guests arrived. She was inside with a few of her unmarried age mates who were helping her dress in a colorful wrapper and head tie.

The guests presented the gifts that made up the bride price. The money and other items were counted by the bride’s father and uncles with some ceremony. Then as always for an Igbo event – a marriage, a funeral, or any social gathering, even a visit to someone’s home – kola nuts were presented.

Before the celebration of loife

Emeka’s widow Ekeoma with a good friend of her husband’s and our son.

Mama’s father, the host, prayed to the ancestors, then shared the kola. The bride was ushered in and seated with her husband. Massive amounts of pounded yam, soup, and drink were served. After more speeches and dancing, the bride left with her new family. Papa took her back to his logging company. There were other Igbo men and women who welcomed her. Clem and his younger brother were born there, with the births attended by other women.

But just a few years into the marriage, there was an incident when Papa injured another worker. He was tipped off that the man’s villagers planned to kill him. He took his family away that night. They went to Onitsha, the largest city in the Igbo part of the country, where he became a successful trader in palm oil.

Mama got a market shed where she sewed and sold children’s clothing. She had two more children, both girls, spacing them at the usual Igbo interval of two years. Then she lost three babies in a row, all boys, who died within a year or two of their birth.

They were distraught. Papa decided to consult an oracle or shaman, known in Igbo as a dibia. His and Mama’s Christianity was sincere, but traditional practices and beliefs did not disappear with the adoption of a new religion. They were taking advantage of all possible resources to solve the problem of the child deaths when they went to Nanka to see the dibia.

I’ll tell you what happened soon!



Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


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  2. Thank you Cathy for letting me have an inkling of what went on at Emekas funeral. I am quietly mourning from Owerri south east Nigeria. I could not hold my tears reading your account. I cannot cerebrate Emekas life( in strict African sense) I mourn, but according to the Bible, not without Hope

  3. A great record of the events-thanks, Mother!

  4. May Emeka’s soul rest in peace!Amen! My hearty condolence to his mum n immediate family members.

  5. Reading your blog over fresh fruit and coffee, I am remembering the Orthodox burial of Paul’s mother, Leona Zlotnik Bluestein Abrams, in Philadelphia. Men holding ropes lowered the casket into the prepared site. The of shovelfuls of earth hitting the wooden casket are still the soundtrack I remember from that December day – jarring at first, becoming muted as the earth piled up. Montefiore Cemetery, at least in the section where Leona is buried, was too full-to-overflowing with hundreds of years of headstones lining narrow paths for the big earth moving equipment to do this work. Thank you for sharing the memory.