Two hours in Atan Cemetery

I had passed by the somewhat large expanse of land surrounded by residential houses many times and never failed to take note of the serene – if not ghostly – atmosphere that made human and vehicular movement always move faster than normal when in the area.
But I had never been inside Atan Cemetery.
As fate would have it, I made history of sorts on February 7, 2013 when for the first time I ventured inside Atan Cemetery in Lagos, Nigeria to join others in burying a family friend.
I had missed the convoy of four cars conveying the corpse earlier in the day, so I made a private arrangement to get there.
And with just my first step inside premises, I viewed a sea of humans whose only identities were the epitaphs written on headstones adjoining their graves.
In that instant I became both a mourner and keen observer and would remain so for the next two hours.
As we walked further in, I noticed another group of mourners who numbered about 100.
Apparently of a tradition that values pre-burial ceremony, they sang and made merry. Nonetheless, some mournful faces could still be noticed.
Further down as I walked, the graves that lay on both sides made me feel like some dignitary taking a guard of honour; the only difference being that those who mounted the guard were some six feet beneath the surface.
Passing in those rows made me appreciate life anew.
Up ahead of me sprung a beautifully fenced section.
On the wall beside the flung open entry gate hung a notice: Ebony Cemetery.
A walk inside revealed class, that is, rolls of well kept graves that were beautifully designed and workers busy at their chores as though very important dead masters were being waited upon.
The look on their faces suggested they would rather not be distracted so I made no attempt to speak to any of them.
I could not help thinking to myself: “Even in the land of the dead, social class still exists!”
Our group of mourners belonged to a lesser class, one that could not decay in eternal peace with the mighty in Ebony Cemetery.
So I trudged on and came up to the final resting place of our dear departed one; dead at just age 38.
We gathered there, barely talking as we contemplated on the life of the deceased and our own lives, keenly aware that this same fate awaited each and every one of us.
The pastor from Risen Christ Family Church International arrived soon enough and was ushered to the grave side, making us all unbidden to move closer to perform the final rites.
The suave pastor – in the fine tradition of Nigerian preachers – delivered efficiently, while not failing to serve us warning that today we were the mourners but we would be the mourned on any day henceforth.
It was a warning that easily found its mark in the sea of graves around us.
While he prayed and as tears rolled down the cheeks of some wailing family members while the casket was lowered solemnly, I noticed about five young men whose outfits gave them away as cemetery hands.
The manner they carried on also suggested their wish to be noticed as well.
I thought to myself: “What could these want?”
Perhaps sensing that the moment was not right for whatever it is they wanted to say, they disappeared – only to reappear a few minutes later when the pastor was done with his benediction.
In the silence that followed the pastor’s conclusion, one of them rasped in his husky voice: “Accept my condolences, people.
“May you never have cause to come here to bury another young family member (he apparently was aware that our loving departed was only 38 years old) again.”
I joined the “amen” chorus as we shuffled, thinking the man simply wanted to comfort us in our grief and was done with his task.
But the man was not finished:
“Please, whatever any one of you has to lift us up, kindly drop in the open bag on the ground.”
I thought to myself; “Beggars in the cemetery?”
Needless to say, the mourners were not too pleased but on seeing that the men had spades and shovels, we all quickly deduced that these were undertakers.
The threat was barely subtle: refuse to give us a bit of money and we cannot guarantee your dear departed will be properly buried.
As a few nairas found their way into the men’s possession, the undertaking work began.
A senior family member stayed back to oversee the undertakers, saying he wanted to ensure they did “a complete job”.
I prodded him on why he elected to supervise the undertakers.
His answer baffled me at first: “With those guys, you can’t afford to take any chance whatsoever.”
Yet again, I thought to myself: “Do these undertakers de-robe the dead in this world the same way the privileged in the outside world deprive the helpless?”
The thought rang in my head as I boarded a bus from the cemetery to the house that the deceased would never enter again.
This thought stuck with me as we wound our way out of this eerie place, driving past the section of military graves.
As we exited, I reflected that I should visit Atan Cemetery more often; macabre as it sounds, death has a way of making us pause and think of the world we live in. They make us mourn more for the world we are in than for the loved ones we have interred.
And replaying the undertakers’ request for a few naira before performing their job, I had to suppress a grin as a I remembered that we were still in mourning.

February 2013
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