Home » Headlines, Religion » Why churches in Igbo land tax the living to bury the dead

Why churches in Igbo land tax the living to bury the dead

By Anayo Okoli, Vincent Ujumadu, Chimaobi Nwaiwu, Ugochukwu Alaribe, Chinedu Adonu, Chinoso Alozie, Ikechukwu Odu, Steve Oko & Emmanuel Iheaka

*We have been canvassing against it in Bishops’ meetings — Chukwuma

*I had met my community leaders to reduce high cost of burial — Anioma monarch

*Not the church, but faithful impose levies — Rev Fr. John Chinenye

*It is unchristian — Abia CAN Chairman

*The practice is harmful to Christianity — Akwukwuegbu

*Church is a place of freewill giving, not taxation – Abia cleric

*Such burial rites should suspended – Ejiofor

*Nothing wrong with it, one should pay his debt while a life — Anaekwe

ENUGU—THERE is a trend in Igbo communities, particularly by churches, whereby if a member dies, he or she is not buried by such a church until certain amount of money, at times, accumulated levies and other payments and rites, are made.This has been a source of worry to bereaved families who go to bury their loved ones. They lament that instead of meeting sympathy and empathy, they, unfortunately, meet taxes, levies and a long list of rites to be fulfilled before they bury their dead. This has also provoked public outcry from members of the public.

In some cases, this attitude had led some families to postpone the burial of their loved ones to enable them source funds to clear the “debt” before the burial, ultimately leading some of them to incur huge debts. And in worst cases, some families sell their belongings, including landed properties. This is a disturbing trend which has equally attracted international media attention as BBC Igbo programme had engaged some Igbo leaders on this in a virtual programme.

Among those that participated in the BBC discussion were the Archbishop of Enugu Province and Bishop of Enugu Diocese, His Grace, Most Rev Chukwuma Emmanuel, the traditional ruler of Anioma Kingdom, Obi Martha Dunkwu, Rev. Fr. John Chinenye and Mrs. Kosiso Christiana.

In his contribution during the programme, Chukwuma who frowned at the practice and reinstated the commitment of the church to bury their members without asking the family of the dead to pay all his/her debt when alive.

He maintained that money cannot take anybody to heaven, pointing out that it is the duty of the church to bury any dead member that was baptized in the church whether owing or not.

He assured that the Anglican Church leadership in the zone would continue to preach against collecting levy from the families of decease before burial date is determined.

Bishop Chukwuma howeveer tasked people spending money to hire the services of funeral homes and music bands to use such money for community development and to help the poor, stressing that those things are vanity upon vanity and cannot help the dead to go to heaven.

“We have been canvassing against it during Bishops’ meetings. In some cases, where I get such report, I do call the Reverend in charge of the Parish/Diocese in order and let him know that money can’t take someone to heaven. In some cases like that, I will go and bury the person. Burial is done according to the strength of the family. I always tell the family of the decease to take any date favourable for them and don’t allow them to spend much money.

“Synod is the time when law that guide churches is being agreed on. We will deliberate on it during synod and make sure we bring it to a stop. We will not stop burying our members because the family could not pay his/her levy”, Chukwuma said.

In her contribution, Igwe, Martha Dunkwu, said as Omu of Anioma, she had met with all the community leaders on how to reduce high levy and other unfavorable issues for burial ceremony.

She accused women of being the major problem on the issue both in the church and traditionally. She disclosed that rich women would like to punish the poor ones among them by insisting on paying all levy before burial. The monarch charged Christians to have faith in God as their saviour and not by belonging to every group in the church. Rev Fr. John Chinenye who also aired his views, bemoaned the high levy being paid before burial and blamed it on the faithful who are bent on collecting the levy before burial.

“The church is not the same. We don’t ask for the family of decease to pay his or her levy before burial but others do. The levy is not good and should be stopped. We have kicked against it before and will continue to preach against it because all fingers are not equal. We should learn to make people invest in the building of faith when alive not paying levy when dead.

“The high levy during burial is from the faithful not from the Priest. Church members will insist on collecting it even when a priest kicks against it. The problem is from the faithful and can be stop if they agree”, he said.

A business woman, Mrs.Kosiso Christiana, on her own, charged the church and traditional leaders to leave up to expectations to curb the high burial expenses, stressing that many families go borrowing to allow them fulfill the tradition of buying cow to bury their dead.

“Church is not doing well for collecting the levy of a dead person from the family before burial. Church should stop collecting such levy of deceased before burial to allow the poor faithfully bury their loved one.

“It is a case to be discussed both in the church and traditionally to make sure that every dead person is buried without much stress. The issue of burying a daughter in Igbo land with a cow, even if the family is poor should stop. It has made many families go borrowing to make sure they bury their mother or daughter with cow”, she lamented.

However, some blame this on non-interest of some families on their churches who benefit from the church but care not know what goes there in terms development and other things.

So, in time of death in the family, the church would open its membership and financial register to determine the status of the deceased. If the person is not financially up to date, the church would not participate in the burial ceremonies.

A case in point is that of late Mr. Gregory Nnaka from Anambra State. He was a member of the Catholic Church in his Ihite community before he traveled to Lagos in search of greener pastures. For many years, Gregory did not return home and therefore lost touch with his local church. He got married in Lagos and unfortunately when he died, a member of the family informed the church for the necessary preparations for his burial by the church.

Although his name was seen in the church register, his accumulated dues had run into thousands of naira and no member of his family had such money to pay. The family thereafter hired a Pentecostal Pastor to conduct the burial service even though the entire members of the family are Catholics.

His elder brother, Chief Innocent Nnaka said that experience affected his relationship with the church because, according to him, the church ought to have considered the fact that the Nnaka’s are all Catholics.

He said: “The church denied our brother at death because of money. It was unbelievable, but it happened. Our parish priest was prepared to give us a waver since my brother was an abroad member, but some people in the parish insisted that if such precedence was set, people would no longer pay their dues in the church. The experience made every member of my family to update his financial status in the church because death does not give notice”.

What happened in Nnaka family is common with many churches. Oftentimes, the churches insist that the money owed by the deceased must be paid in full before their members would attend the burial. Where such families cannot afford the amount owed, they hire a pastor who can avail the family with his services with fees ranging from N10000 to N20000.

A Reverend Father, Anselm Okeke said there is no justification for the debt of any member to accumulate to the level that his family could not pay in the event of death.

He said: “What are these levies? They are monies paid when someone dies, which for married men is just N100. If someone’s levy is paid during every burial, there is no way it can accumulate to the extent that the living would find it difficult to pay when the person dies.

“The other levies could be bazaar, ordination and on rare occasions, building levy. The problem some people have is that their name would be in the church register, but they will never identify with the church until something happens and the church is asked to bury the person.

“If peasants in the villages are meeting up with payment of these levies, why won’t someone who is abroad the way we call it? Imagine someone who wedded in the church and shortly after, traveled and never bothered to know what is happening in his local church, only to be asked to come and bury him 30 years later”.

For the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Abia State chapter, Apostle Emmanuel Agomuo, the attitude of some churches who demand that certain levies owed by their deceased members be cleared by the bereaved family before conducting his/her burial is unchristian.

Agomuo who frowned at the embarrassing practice, said that any church involved in the practice is not worthy to be described as church but commercial enterprise.

“When somebody has died, he has died and should not be denied burial. If you say the family must pay all the accumulated bills how much are you going to pay them back as burial rite?

“When somebody was alive and was giving offerings and paying tithe, why will you refuse to bury him when he dies?”

The CAN boss argued that 70-80% of people in that category are usually the down trodden who merely struggled to make ends meet while they were alive.

“When the wealthy ones die, even Prelates, Bishops and General Overseers of their churches attend their burial. But when these poor people die their families would be taxed to clear their debts. This practice is not good! It’s not a mark of christianity.

“Majority of the victims are the poor and the downtrodden who owe because of their poor conditions. Some of them even died because they couldn’t afford good medical treatment.

“Such people should not be abandoned at death. I have spoken against this severally and those churches doing this should stop it”, Agomuo admonished

In his view, the Traditional Prime Minister of Ibeku Ancient Kingdom, High Chief Uche Akwukwuegbu, described the practice as harmful to Christianity.

According to him, “it doesn’t not portray a good image for the church if they abandon their members at death just because such a member could not pay burial levy where as such a member was giving offerings and paying tithe while alive.”

Akwukwuegbu, who is the National President of Traditional Prime Ministers Association of Nigeria, argued that bonafide members of the church should not be deprived of their burial rites simply because they were owing certain debts in the church.

He, however, suggested that any indebtedness left behind by a deceased member of the church should be waived by the church except if the bereaved family is financially buoyant to defray such debt before the burial.

According to him, it is unfair to increase the financial burden of bereaved families during their moments of grief, hence the need for the stoppage of such obnoxious practice.

In his contribution, Pastor Christopher Ononuju of the Church of God Seventh Day, condemned the practice saying that the church is a place of freewill giving, not taxation.

Ononuju who is the Abia State Overseer of the Church, explained that some people in the church have abandoned the doctrine of compassion and love set by Jesus Christ to make laws to cause confusion and deceive members in the Church.

He lamented that burial has become a way of making money by the church and priests as no sympathy is shown to the bereaved family.

In his words: “It is clear that some of these problems such as demanding a bereaved family to settle debts owed by their dead relation were instituted by us. In the olden days, when a church member dies, the bereaved family will alert the parish priest, who will through bell-ringing inform their members.

Within the interval of time, the dead will be buried without many expenses, but this is no longer the case today as bereaved families must source for money and even sell properties to get funds to settle debts owed by the late members and hold massive burial ceremonies. In some churches, bereaved families must present goats, drinks, stipends and other rites before their dead ones are buried. It doesn’t matter if the bereaved becomes impoverished after the burial.

“In Igbo communities and the Church, some people have ignored the doctrine of compassion and love to make laws for themselves. Yes, rites are received and given. I also agree that members of the church should prove their membership through payment of one levy or the other.

But the problem today is that most Christian denominations are no more considerate to conditions, abilities, and inabilities of their members. Burials today have become a way of making money by the church and priests, especially when if it involves a wealthy family. Huge amounts of money are spent on burials.

The act of demanding debt settlement before burying the dead is the order of the day. Sympathy is no longer shown to the bereaved family. Money has been made the paramount factor above the most important matter, which is seeking the kingdom of God.

“We must have a compassionate heart, share sorrow and pains when we lose a member of the Church. Forcing the family of a dead member to settle the debt owed has made lots of people to hate going to church. Church should be a place of freedom and not intimidation. Church is not a place of taxation but a place of freewill giving.

“In The Church of God Seventh Day, we do not collect or force any bereaved family to pay debt owed by their late relation. We have nothing to do with the money since the dead member refused paying while alive.

The only thing we do is that the dead member may not be given any monetary rite. Arrears of debts paid at death have no meaning to the Church. Let us not add sorrow and pain to troubled families. I agree that Christian faithful should settle whatsoever commitment or dues they owe when they are alive and not when they are dead.

“But asking families of the dead to pay off debts of their loved ones should not be completely cancelled if the family can afford it. However, let the Churches and communities reduce hand in their strictness of handling debts recovery of their dead persons. Let the Church play her role as a loving mother full of compassion. Let the Church not put a stumbling block on those who come to serve God.

“Let us treat the poor and less privileged members with love, compassion and meekness. Remember, the Church buried Stephen without any cost. Let everything be done to the glory of God. Burial is one of the must do ceremonies in the world. There are burial rites and mourning of the dead, burial should be a time of sorrow, not for settlement of debt.”

However, Bishop Uzoma Emmanuel, the Prelate of Christ Victorious Alive Revival Mission, Owerri, Imo State, sees nothing wrong with the practice unless in a situation of incapacitation.

“If one belongs to a church, the person should be up to date in terms of payment of levy. It is not just for the issue of death, but also for other purposes. For instance, when one is wedding, or having a child dedication, the members of the church are expected to honour the event.

It is Biblical in Romans Chapter 12 which enjoins that when one is celebrating, the church should celebrate with him; when he is mourning, the church should also mourn with him. So, it is very good for one to be very honest and faithful in whatever he is doing, financially and otherwise.

“Church is an organization. A member should be faithfully committed to paying his or her dues, except in a situation the person is incapacitated because of sickness or loss of job. In such case, the church should be informed so that the church will wave off the issue of payment of levy for that person.

Otherwise, if the person dies, it is not wrong for the church to tell his relatives that our member was not paying dues or was owing while alive and that we will want you to clear the dues before the burial commences.

“It is done by most orthodox churches but most of the Pentecostal Churches don’t really do that. But while the person is still alive, the Pentecostal churches would tell him the importance of being faithful with payment of dues.

“To identify those who are not capable of paying dues maybe because of ill health or loss of job, the departments in the church should be responsible for this. Every church has departments. So, the various leaders of the departments should always inform the priest or pastor of any member of any of the departments who falls under the category of those who are not capable of paying dues due to one problem or another.

“The leaders of the departments are responsible for knowing the welfare of their members and reporting to the priest or pastor about any case of incapacitation,” the cleric said.

In the view of the former President General, Onitsha Markets Amalgamated Traders Association, OMATA, Chief Ozoh Anaekwe, tasking the living to bury their death has both advantages and disadvantages, but generally, there is nothing wrong in one paying his debts. People should be disciplined while alive. Laziness and recklessness should not be encouraged while living, otherwise, one’s family will suffer the consequences.

“When you come to the Church, it is like the government, when somebody dies and you go to the bank to get his money, government will task you by taking some part of the money, the same thing happens in the Church.

Mind you the Church never forced you to become their member, before you become a member or when you are a member, you know their rules and regulations and your family knows their rules and regulations.

If you are not capable of meeting their rules and regulations, you go elsewhere where such tasking does not obtain. They are not forcing you to be part of them, they are also not forcing you to stay with them, so you keep to their rules and regulations.

“The day you are entering or belonging to one Church or the other, you are liable to obey and keep to the rules and regulations of what they do in the Church for the living and the dead, you should not complain.

It is just like Ozo Title, Church is like Ozo Title, if you are a member, you must keep to their rules and regulations, and when you die, they will contribute certain things to give your people and if you are owing them, you must pay. So, it is better to pay up your debt when you are alive so that when you die nobody will disturb your people.

“So you cannot say they are tasking you to bury the dead when the dead owed and died.

“Nobody forced you to belong to the Church or Ozo Title, it is out of your will that you belong and therefore, you must meet up with the obligations attached to them. It is also like belonging to a Club. When a member dies, the members will contribute to assist the family, the children and the widow or widower. So you must contribute to club when you are alive for your family to get such assistance.

“The idea of making sure that every debt owed by the dead must be paid before his or her burial, particularly by the Church, depends on the particular Church. If you allow the rules of the Church, it is not a bad thing for Church to draw the debt owed by living or dead member, because you were not forced to belong. If you must be member, you must make the required contributions so that when you pass on, your people will not be tasked to pay the debt you owe but if you don’t want to follow the rules and regulations, there is always an exit door.

“If you believe in God and you are a member of any Church or religious denomination, you must keep to their rules. If you are a member of any union, when they are making contributions, you should contribute either monthly or yearly.

“We pay taxes yearly and if you do not want to pay tax in Nigeria, you leave the and go where they are not paying tax. So as the government is collecting tax, so is the Church or even the Umunna and the kindred. So, if you are as member of a Church or kindred or town, you must contribute what is expected of you. You must pay because the money is used to carry out a project and you must not forget that those who are working in the Church are paid, they spend money to build the Church, carry out one project or the other, they spend money to build schools and teach our children morals especially now the schools have been handed over to them.

“So, when they ask for money owed them, they are not tasking anybody to bury the dead. They need money to pay the teachers and keep the schools alive and even the Church where you go and pray to God. The same thing applies to the Kindred and Umunna. So if you refuse to pay your debt in either of the two, when you pass on, they will bring your records and your people will pay”.

However, an Owerri resident, Mike Ejiofor appealed to churches and organizations to grant waiver to dead members and go ahead to conduct the burial ceremonies.

“This is what we see in Church organizations and our communities, including some strong bodies. In some cases, the organizations will not come and bury the person while some will come and prevent the burial ceremony from taking place until the family members fulfill all the rituals to allow the burial of the deceased. This is serious and it seems like it is not changing. I am only pleading that we start seeing it from the angle that the level of poverty is on increase and people are dying like fowl.

“That is why I am saying that instead of stopping the burial ceremony, I advise that the burial rites that should be given to the family members should be held back until when all the necessary things are done”.

In his contribution, the President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Nsukka Local Government Area Chapter, Prof. Damian Opata, described today’s churches as associations which have rules that entitle members to some benefits during death or other social functions. He said that some of the benefits are realized by levying the members.

“The Church is an association, or behaves like one. Some associations have rules that entitle members to specified benefits, including provisions to be met if a member dies. Generally, such rules come under a constitutional section on “Welfare.”

On whether Christians are not supposed to be tending to the spiritual wellbeing and upliftment of members instead of imposing levies on them, he said: “Well, the major function of any Christian Church the way I learnt it is to teach morality and the love of God. Of course churches are concerned with the acts of mercy and philanthropy, especially with helping the poor and the handicapped.

“Most of these interventions are for their members. They could ordinarily help their members, whether such members owe dues and levies. But some Churches behave like social organizations.

“In traditional Igbo societies, people indebted to their communities are accorded normal burial rites. However, if such people have financial entitlements, whatever they owe is deducted from such entitlements, that is, if their entitlements are more than what they owe. If what they owe is more than their entitlements, their children or family members pay the deficit”.

-Vanguard

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