Death Becomes Us: Negotiating Consumer Identities Through Funerary Products in Ghana

ABSTRACT - Death is an inevitable aspect of the consumer experience. In spite of this, consumer researchers have neglected the phenomenon in their studies. This paper reports a preliminary investigation into death ritual consumption and its use as a vehicle for the competitive expression of consumer identities. The study is set in Asante, Ghana in an effort to further broaden consumption research beyond the scope of western philosophical boundaries.


Sammy Bonsu (2001) ,"Death Becomes Us: Negotiating Consumer Identities Through Funerary Products in Ghana", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 340-346.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 340-346


Sammy Bonsu, University of North Carolina, Greensboro


Death is an inevitable aspect of the consumer experience. In spite of this, consumer researchers have neglected the phenomenon in their studies. This paper reports a preliminary investigation into death ritual consumption and its use as a vehicle for the competitive expression of consumer identities. The study is set in Asante, Ghana in an effort to further broaden consumption research beyond the scope of western philosophical boundaries.


As doctors, when they examine the state of a patient and recognize that death is at hand, pronounce: 'He is dying, he will not recover’, so we must say from the moment a man is born: 'He will not recover.’" (St. Augustine, quoted in Sarpong 1974, p. 20)

As St. Augustine remarks, death is the only true guarantee for every person, an ubiquitous phenomenon that pervades all aspects of the lived consumer experience. Graveyards around the world are filling up quickly due in part to the graying of the American population, wars in the Balkans and parts of Africa, and HIV/AIDS epidemics. The importance of death rituals in the USA is reflected in the fact that related products constitute the 3rd largest expenditure for most Americans, after homes and automobiles (Lino 1990). In less affluent parts of the world, the importance of death extends far beyond monetary value of related expenditures. Among the Asante people of central Ghana, for instance, there is a belief in the existence of the Kingdom of the Dead (Asamando) and custom suggests that great attention be paid to the proper conduct of burials and funeral celebrations (Gyekye 1995). This often translates into elaborate death ritual consumer activities that require spending far in excess of the bereaved’s means.

In spite of the global relevance of death ritual consumption, references to the phenomenon in consumer research are very rare. A literature search on the subject within the discipline yielded only a handful of scholarly work (e.g., Gabel, Mansfield and Westbrook 1996; Gentry, Kennedy, Paul and Hill 1995; Schwartz, Jolson and Lee 1986). The conspicuous absence of death related issues in marketing and consumer research is partly a result of social restrictions on the public space of death in western cultures (Aries 1974). The rarity of death product advertising and the absence of product sales outlets in high traffic areas provide marketplace evidence to this effect.

This "pornography of death", as Gorer (1955) puts it, is a result of consumers’ inherent fear of death. Guided by this fear, consumers perceive death as an inevitable nuisance whose time for eradication has arrived (Baudrillard 1993; Harrington 1969). Consumer strategies towards this end include the creation of symbolic immortality modes such as shrines (Gentry et al 1995), electronic memorials (e.g., and cryonic suspensionBthe freezing of a corpse in liquid nitrogen with the hope of bringing it back to life one day (Brown 1997). In the course of rendering their deceased immortal, bereaved persons also seek to facilitate mobility towards their own social status and identity aspirations.

Th primary purpose of this study was to seek preliminary insights into how consumers negotiate their social identities through consumption of death rituals. The study is premised on the view that culturally entrenched meanings of death inculcate "ideolog[ies] of consumption" in bereaved consumers across different cultures, thereby fostering social ideals that fuel the unending project of the consumer self (Giddens 1991; Thompson and Haytko 1997), albeit uniquely within each society. The study’s primary objective was achieved through a careful reading of interview data gathered from bereaved consumers among the Asante people of central Ghana, a small country on the west coast of Africa. The Asante inhabit an area of Ghana, about one-third the size of England. They constitute the single largest ethnic group in Ghana, making up about 15% of the country’s population. Scholarly dialogue on issues of consumption has often been restricted to the experiences of affluent societies. The choice of the Asante people for this study was, therefore, an effort to extend consumption research beyond the dominant western philosophical boundaries of thought in the discipline. It was also influenced in part by the openness in that culture about death-related issues and by the author’s familiarity with the society.

Furthermore, the Asante [the term may be used to refer to the people, their location and culture] offer an interesting research site by reason of their infamy for the elaborate display of material wealth during death ceremonies (Arhin 1994, Rattray 1927). It is not uncommon for bereaved consumers to spend the equivalent of US$2000 on a casket alone. This is in spite of the fact that the society (as part of Ghana) has consistently ranked among the world’s poorest (WDR 1980B1998), with a per capita annual GDP of about US$420. The context, thus, challenges the oft-assumed view that poverty leads to frugality and carefully considered product choices.


Bird (1980, p.19) defined ritual as culturally transmitted symbolic codes that are manifested in prescribed behavior forms used by individuals or groups to cope with the pressures of reality. Within the framework of this definition, rituals have symbolic expression, complexity and ambiguity (Bell 1997). These intangible aspects are objectified in the form of ritual artifacts, scripts and performances for a target audience, and are repeated as and when sanctioned by social authority (Rook 1986). Like other rituals, Asante death ceremonies exhibit these characteristics, including strongly scripted performances that follow a well-defined order of occurrence. However, as Bourdieu (1977) contends, ritual is not just about following scripts but is also about reshuffling the rules and other cultural categories to meet the needs of the relevant society in time and space. Bereaved persons in Asante are very much a part of this reshuffling as they symbolically consume the dead for social benefits.

Death ritual symbolism is global in nature and is exemplified in festivals such as the "day of the dead" in Mexico, the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts in China, and the "Obon" in Japan. These festivals are recognized by many as systems of activities to remember the dead and honor them appropriately for the sacrifices they made to ensure the way of life of the living. The festivals allow for a blurring of the line between death and life, and provide a symbolic melding of the communities of the dead and the living for the mutual benefit of both (Bell 1997). Death in Asante lends itself to such interpretation. The occasion is regarded as a time when deceased persons set out on a journey to a better world where their ancestors have already goneBa place where they must settle any account they have with those who have gone before them and to claim rewards for sacrifices made on earth (Sarpong 1974, p. 22). Death is, therefore, a necessary conditio for continued growth into a New World. Communication between the living and the dead is maintained by way of prayer through a power structure whereby the living rely on the dead for protection and prosperity, among other things (Gyekye 1995; Kopytoff 1971).


According to Deighton (1992, p. 393), a performance is "a witnessed event, whose audience perceives it to happen in relation to an obligation, and who holds it to be standard". In this sense, death rituals are uniquely placed as performances because they represent a negative aspect of life that is forced on us by nature (Fulton 1994). Often, death ritual performances are scripted into mini parts such as wake keeping, funeral and burialBvery much like 'acts’ in a play. As much as one cannot make utter sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by reading or watching only Act 1, so the various parts of death rituals do not make sense as independent "acts". Death ritual acts are necessarily stringed together, with each depending on the others for completeness of meaning.

To the extent that death rituals are performances that use products to enhance their ability to influence significant others, it is reasonable to accept Deighton’s (1992, p. 362) argument that "performances, not products, are the most general objects of the verb "to consume"." Through death ritual performances, bereaved persons gain a range of socio-economic benefits (Arhin 1994) that are extended to the deceased by association (Grainger 1998). These intangible social resource exchanges during death rituals the symbolic use of the dead for purposes of identity enhancement for both the bereaved and the deceased (Baudrillard 1993; Kastenbaum, Peyton & Kastenbaum 1977). The current study sought to explore this process of identity negotiations.


The discovery orientation of this study suggested the use of phenomenological hermeneutic analysis (Thompson 1997). Long open-ended interviews were conducted with eleven consumers who had been bereaved at least once in the past 5 years. Table 1 provides summary characteristics of the respondents. The main purpose of the interviews and their open-endedness was to allow respondents ample opportunity to express their broader views on the issues of death ritual consumption and their roles in shaping sociocultural dynamics (McCracken 1988). All interviews were conducted in the local language (Asante Twi) and were audiotaped.

In the course of data gathering, interview tapes were regularly reviewed in order to guide, but not restrict, the foci of future interviews (cf. Schouten 1991). This reading improved researcher familiarity with the data, facilitating "meaning discrimination" (Giorgi 1997, p. 246). In the hermeneutic tradition of constituting lived experiences in a specific sociocultural context (Dilthey 1977), analysis started with a close reading of the verbatim transcripts in the local language. A contextualized analysis of interview data within the confines of the specific times and spaces that influence the death ritual consumption experience among the Asante was adopted. Consumption issues were summarized within the framework of the symbolic project of the self (cf. Cerulo 1997; Belk 1991; Giddens 1991;Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982).


As background to subsequent discussion, it is worth noting that all eleven respondents repeatedly expressed utmost concern for the remaking and preservation of a good image for the dead, especially when the person lived what would be described as a "good" life. "Good" and "bad" lives correspond to the two major catgories of funerals in Asante, as determined by the perceived expense invested in the ceremony by the bereaved family and the number of people who attend (Sarpong 1974, p.29). Most people strive for the good funeral, which are manifested in the form of a large number of people attending, along with the careful selection and use of expensive consumer items that are imbued with symbolic expressions of wealth, social status and other markers of identity. The small number of participants and the perceived low quality of funeral artifacts used identify bad funerals. While good funerals enhance the social status of the deceased and the bereaved, bad ones have the opposite effect on the parties concerned.

As with many rituals, participants in Asante death ceremonies may have a temporary reprieve from some social norms (Gluckman 1963). For instance, social rules about frugality and wastage are suspended, allowing bereaved consumers to be excessively extravagant and to display their wealth (borrowed, earned or inherited) as expressions of their ideal social selves. Under normal circumstances, such action would be considered cause for alienation, but in the context of death rituals, the bereaved can glaringly engage in such behavior without the risk of social ostracism. Thus, there is ample opportunity for consumers to use death ritual artifacts and rituals as vehicles for remaking the identities of their deceased relatives, as well as their own.

Remaking the Identities of Deceased Consumers

One of the main uses of funerals among bereaved consumers in Asante is to develop a sense of personal identity for their dead by publicly presenting them in a manner consistent with societal expectations of an honorable and presentable funeral for colleagues of comparable social status. Through this process, bereaved consumers may on each funeral occasion renegotiate social identities through perceived contrast of their rituals to others in the defined social setting. Various bereaved consumers suggested how identity boundaries are defined in Asante death rituals and how they devise strategies to subtly extend these boundaries, as and when necessary, in efforts to present a positive public image of the deceased. (At the time of the interviews, US$1 was equal to C2500Bthe Ghanaian currency is called Cedi and denoted by C).

Diana: he did not make any real contribution to the family and he has no friends who are willing to share in the overall costs of his funeral. In this case, for a person like that, the family has to be very modest in an effort to minimize the funeral costsfor us, our mother was the best thing that happened to us. She took very good care of us and so we cannot allow her to be placed in such a bad dwelling place. That is the house we are building for her and so we the children will take care of the casket at C500,000 or even C5 million. That is the way it is [pauses]. Perhaps you are in a family and you are lazy, you don’t contribute in any way to the well being of members of the family. As soon as you drop dead, as soon as the head of the family is notified, he immediately sends someone to get a casket and perhaps, he will purchase one at C50,000, because if he gets himself into debt, he will be responsible. Funerary rites and products are for the glorification of the deceased. This is to indicate that the deceased lived a very reputable life on this earth, and so the funeral was very beautiful and his children have made sure to let people know, and to "lift his face".

Diana indicaes her understanding of death ritual activities and related consumption choices as a function of the life that the deceased was perceived to have lived. She considers her mother to have lived a "good" life, and so she was willing to expend significant resources to give her mother a funeral that was consistent with the deceased’s perceived social status. Her comments suggest that death provides occasions for the living to reflect on the quality of a deceased’s life on earth. The outcome of this reflection influences the level of negotiations that is deemed necessary as the bereaved apply death products to represent the perceived social status of the deceased. Invitations are not necessary to attend a funeral in Asante. It stands to reason, then, that not all participants in a funeral would have personally known the person whose final rites they are attending. For such participants, the funeral becomes the main yardstick for assessing the deceased’s social prominence. Offering expensive caskets and other symbols of wealth and power for funeral rituals become very important in this context.

While the deceased person’s perceived social status in life may guide the nature of his/her funeral, bereaved families may exaggerate the deceased’s social status through the use of consumer objects indicative of higher levels of status and identity. Strategies of this kind are expected to be most effective when the deceased was not known enough in the local community. This may be one of the reasons why Asantes may prefer that their funerals be held in their places of birth, even though they may not have grown up or even lived in that community (Arhin 1994). Even when members of a community have formed their opinions of a person prior to his/her death, the nature of consumption during the person’s funeral may enhance the person’s social status, as reflected in the following interview excerpt from a respondent talking about his brother.

Donko: well, what do you do? Others may have written him off but he was one of us, my flesh and blood. I couldn’t let him go in a disgraceful mannerthat was why we did all we could to make sure that he got a decent funeral and burial. Later, a lot of people came to tell us that we did well to "lift the face" of our prince. we had to make people aware of his sense of community, his life before he started drinkingthere was a part of him that wasn’t known.

Donko clearly recognizes the potential for remaking the identity of his deceased brother through funeral ritual consumption. In the course of the interview, he pointed to the fact that it was in his own interest as well as that of his deceased brother to make sure that people saw the other, more positive, side of the deceased. He indicated that while many may have counted him as a destitute, he believes they now think of him in a different light. By his own account, Donko successfully manipulated public opinion to enhance his deceased brother’s image through the funeral. Granted that the deceased was notorious in the community and that many had formed their opinions of him prior to his death and expected a "bad" funeral for him, the social negotiations for remaking his identity were difficult. Donko summarily described his brother’s funeral as one fit for a king. He noted that he pooled all his available resources towards this end and that was the only way he could erase the bad images that the society held about his brother.

In spite of the relaxation in social restrictions on extravagance during ritual activites, the rigorous pursuit of newer, positive identities through funerary products must be tempered with caution. Society still expects a reasonably level of modesty in the use/display of material wealth in Asante death rituals and so bereaved consumers in Asante may choose to indulge in the subtleties of those aspects of death ritual consumption that do not infringe on social rules regarding extravagance. For instance, the data suggest that bereaved Asante consumers associate the number of people at a funeral with high social status, probably because the "draw", symptomatic of spectacular consumption (Penaloza 1999), is indicative of the level of respect the deceased commanded in society. Because people attending funerals in Asante have to be offered drinks and sometimes food (Arhin 1994), a large number of participants may signify that large expenditures are associated with the funeral. This may explain Prempeh’s clear preference for crowded funerals over economic gains in the following excerpt:

When your loved one dies, you expect that people will attend the funeral. We are not as concerned with the money that is raised, . We are more interested in the number of people who attend the funeral. I am not saying that we do not like the money, we do, absolutely. However, the people, people often say "the funeral came" [literal translation meaning that there were too many people at the funeral]. not enough standing room even. This is a more visible representation of the deceased’s prominence in society. People can see without doubt that the person who has died was important and had a lot of respect in his community. And we like that. I pray and hope that I get such a good funeral when I go.

This perspective is important when viewed within the context that invitations to funerals are not necessary for attendance, and that on any Saturday (the usual day for Asante funerals), there are many funerals that are competing for community participation by way of attendance. The more people there are at one’s funeral, the more social status is accorded the deceased. To gain the necessary competitive advantage towards this end, bereaved consumers may resort to mass media advertisement of the funeral arrangements. This effort is designed to appeal to the community orientation of Asante society in a subtle manner, and the ads are presented as if to inform and not to persuade (Lawuyi 1991).

The intense competition for funeral ritual participants on any given day has encouraged bereaved persons to adopt novel and foreign approaches to gaining the attention of their target audiences. Recent trends indicate the use of non-traditional methods such as serving of food to attract the poor masses and sending out funeral invitation cards. Some bemoan this increasingly popular trend, casting it in negative light.

Diana: you see, those who need cards to invite people to funerals are those who do not attend funerals in the community. Which means if you specifically invite people, nobody will attend. Me, when my mother died, I can say that even today, some people meet me and ask how my mother is doing. When I tell them that she died a few years a go, they make funeral donations.

Interviewer: Oh, really?

Diana: Yes.The old lady herself attended all relevant funerals. If you live in this city and you attend funerals, then invitation cards are not necessary. Because when I hear of your loss, when I meet you, I will tell you that so-and so’s mother has died. The next Monday, I will come by and express my condolences. I will indicate that this person told me when I met her yesterday. .You are always attending funeral and wishing people well and so if they see you at a social gathering they will inquire about you. So when your loved one die, everyone wants to help you out.

I: Wode woho gyigya? [You make as many friends as possible now to get help in the future when you need it]

D: Exactly!

The respondent acknowledges the importance of radio and newspaper announcements but frowns on the use of funeral invitational cards for the same purpose. She suggests that the use of these cards is tantamount to telling the community that the deceased did not attend local funerals and, therefore, is not deserving of the support of others. She alludes to the transactional nature of funeral rituals where you give up some time and money now in exchange for future attendance of your family funerals. In short, she views people who use non-traditional forms of advertising to gain competitive advantage as cheaters who are trying to find ways of deriving benefits (large attendance at funerals and hence social status) that they do not deserve (because they did not attend funerals often).

While elaborate and expensive funerals may be the norm in negotiating social identities, there are instances where a bereaved family may opt to have no funeral for their deceased. This is often the case when the family believes that their deceased lived a life that was perceived to be socially unacceptable, and that the family would have tremendous difficulty in creating new identities for the deceased. Rather than expend economic and social resources to enhance the deceased’s social status through elaborate funerals, the bereaved may decide to acknowledge the death through a visitation only. A reception is held where family members receive verbal condolences from sympathizers. Tradition mandates visitations as the main death ritual event when a woman loses a child for the first time (Sarpong 1974). When the ritual is applied in "regular" death situations, it is often as a way of sending a message about the deceased to the community.

Prempeh: Look, my own elder brother died, my mother’s son (with a notable change in his tone of voice and facial expression to indicate the closeness of the relationship) but I did not organize a funeral for him. The head of the family and his children interceded on his behalf but I held my ground. To this day, no funeral has been organized for him. I didn’t want to be involved and without my involvement, I knew things would go wrong [pauses], and my reputation is at stake.

Prempeh went on to tell a story about how his brother took advantage of his generosity and exploited him. He also recounted various instances where he made significant sacrifices just to be able to support his brother and his nuclear family, only to be rewarded with conscious efforts on his brother’s part to undermine him. The conspicuous absence of a funeral was to be a loud message to the community about the deceased’s "bad" life. People who do not know the deceased may conclude that he was too horrible a person to be so despised by the family. By not publicly saying a final farewell to his brother, Prempeh communicated the low status of his brother to the community and suggested that he (Prempeh) was a person with character and integrity who did not want to be associated with his brother. The irony of this "deafening silence" that it has the potential to backfire into a devastating negative image for the bereaved, as was the case with the British royal family n rumors that Princess Diana wouldn’t be granted a royal funeral (Adato 1997).

The foregoing seem to suggest that altruism is the major driving force behind bereaved consumers’ decisions to offer elaborate funerals for their deceased. However, the data suggest that inasmuch as the image of the deceased is negotiated through expensive and socially symbolic consumer products, so the bereaved also seek identity enhancements through these products.

Remaking the Identities of Bereaved Consumers

The data indicates that bereaved consumers use stereotypical meanings of death ritual consumption objects as motifs in their own symbolic self-completion strategies (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982). Offering pump funerals for deceased persons may, in fact, be more for the living who apply such rituals as coping strategies (Grainger 1998; Parkes 1998). While pursuing the "good" funeral in honor of the deceased, the bereaved consciously incorporate consumption choices that move them closer to their own identity aspirations. For instance, in one 130-minute interview, the respondent made at least 12 references to the fact that he hopes that his relatives look at the good funerals he is organizing and later give him a similar farewell on his passing. This respondent is obviously using the funerals he arranges to express his death product preferences to the community. He is also communicating a conception of his own identity, as he believed it to be reflected in the death ritual choices he had organized for his "good" relatives. Other respondents related similar latent consumer motives in their interviews.

Annoh: The casket that he was displayed in, you have to see it to believe it. Knowing that children are the ones often responsible for purchasing caskets for their parents, this translated into significant praise and respect for the deceased and his children. It became the talk of the town. As soon as people left the funeral site, they were talking to each other about the funeral, the people and the casket, saying: "Did you see the casket that his children purchased for him to be buried in?" This is such good status for the children. In other instances where the children are afraid of incurring any debts, they will purchase a simple casket for your burial. People are going to talk about this too but in a negative way. Some will insult the eldest child thus: "when your mother died, we saw the awful casket in which she was buried".

Annoh reinforces the view that funeral rituals are for reshaping the identities of deceased persons while emphasizing the use of these rituals for negotiating the identities of the bereaved. Reflected in his comment is the social stigma associated with a bad funeral and how it may be taken out on the bereaved. Many respondents indicated that they would not lead any family activities where members were not willing to expend the necessary resources for an honorable funeral because "they didn’t want any shame to come upon them". Towards this end, consumers purchase death products that are imbued with positive symbolic implications for their own social status.

Manu: Well, for example, our father, he took very good care of all his children. So when he died, we purchased a casket for about C2 million. We bought his suit from America, a very expensive, top quality suit to make him up for the public viewing, to show the kind of life that he led on earth and how much he took care of his children. Asante custom dictates that children buy their parents’ caskets and so if you take good care of your children, they will purchase the best casket available for your burial and give you the best funeral that money can buy.

She goes on

If you do not buy a beautiful casket for your father’s burial, people are going to talk ill of you, which means that the children themselves have no stature in the society. That is why normally, whether or not the children can afford it, they have to do the best they can to purchase a casket that is presentable to the society, for their dad [Presentable here relates to the beauty/details of the casket, often indicative of the price paid for it. Caskets may range in price from C30,000BC20 million]. That is why most people buy expensive and beautiful caskets. In fact, some people buy caskets on credit, that is the casket, some people buy on credit. It all comes down to the fact that if you do not purchase a beautiful casket for your father, or your mother, people are going to look down on you and describe you as irresponsible members of society. That is why you couldn’t buy a presentable casket and give them a good funeral. That is just the way it is.

Implicit in the above excerpt is the idea that the respondent and her siblings are respectable members of society because her father had taken very good care of them and they had reciprocated by way of the consumption objects used for his funeral. In a society where a person’s worth is measured by the number of children he/she has and their stations in life, it is important for children to make conspicuous those items that represents the status levels they seek for their parents as they express their own successes in life. Manu indicates in her story the extent to which her father was a man of high repute and how she and her siblings represented that in his funeral. She uses her family’s access to western cultural capital (American suit) to offer a glimpse of her and her siblings’ life successes, and attributes this success to having had a good father. The American suit represents their identity in that it distinguishes them from others who would bury their dead in locally manufactured clothing. In essence, she is using the American suit on her dead father as an identity marker, communicating social status and her conception of herself and her family to the rest of society (cf Appiah 1992; Bourdieu 1984). Many other respondents made references to foreign cuisine, unique hearses and other imported items they have used in death rituals.

By going through such social negotiations process, Manu and others like her exhibit two consumption motives that have been described as consummatory and instrumenal (Alderson 1957). Consummatory motives underlie consumer behavior that is intrinsically rewarding while instrumental motives are seldom rewarding in themselves, but are necessary to achieve other goals. The data suggests that bereaved consumers may harbor both motives in the face of death. The bereaved’s consummatory motives lead them to lavish final gifts on the deceased as a way to alleviate their guilt and other psychological costs and to reward the deceased through enhanced social status derived from the expensive funeral objects (Grainger 1998). This motive was evident in Manu’s narrative. In addition, Manu’s conspicuous display of her deceased father in an American suit reflects her instrumental motives by the use of her father as a symbolic vehicle towards her social status and identity aspirations. Thus, she engaged in a lavish and elaborate funeral as much for herself as for her deceased father.

Death related consumption are so important in shaping the social identities of the living that some consumers may resort to unorthodox approaches in efforts to be associated with these rituals. For instance, strangers to a family may offer to take financial and social responsibility for the death ritual of a person they never knew. This is similar to the culturally mediated global phenomenon that was Princess Diana’s funeral, where complete strangers across the world organized real and virtual activities (vigils, parties and virtual funerals) for the Princess. However, in the case of the Asante, the strangers are consciously seeking to gain the relevant social and economic benefits from taking on such responsibility. Those who are wealthy and have need to redefine their identities may actively seek those who have limited resources to provide elaborate funerals for their relatives and provide the necessary resources for them. This market offering is often on condition that the person providing the funds is allowed to present himself as a relative of the deceased and to be recognized by the society as having provided the "fine things" used for the deceased’s funeral.

Annoh:These days, when someone dies, a complete stranger may offer to take full responsibility for the funeral and burial [gesturing disgust at the practice, with his hands].

Interviewer: What is wrong with that?

Annoh: All of these have to do with money and social status. When the person makes money [from donations given by wellwishers] he keeps it. All the praise and glory that comes with the funeral also go to him. In my village, we are taking steps to stop the funeral from becoming a commercial enterprise. They have just introduced a law that when somebody dies, those who live in the town contribute a maximum of C1000.

Under these circumstances, funerals and the potential identities associated with them are offered for sale on the open market to high bidding stranger. Mercantilism takes control of the social order and offers mutually beneficial options to all involved. The arrangement helps the truly bereaved as it enhances their social status while helping the sponsoring party by opening him up to the society at large as one who spares no expense to express love and respect for his deceased relatives. According to Annoh, although a family may not have money, they still want the best for their deceased but may be unwilling to sacrifice their current level of social status for financial ends. Thus, when they perceive an interested bidder as a potential liability in terms of reputation, they will not sell the funeral rights to that person. This development is obviusly worrisome for the elders of the community, as evidenced by their efforts to reverse the trend. Still, one observes intangible consumer resource exchange in its truest form as part of the social negotiations that ultimately define the identity of the bereaved, derived from funeral product acquisition and consumption in the name of the deceased.

It stands to reason, then, that the identities of the bereaved and the deceased are interwoven in a manner that facilitates a direct relationship between the perceived social standing of the bereaved. The exaggerated identity profiles of deceased persons expressed through the material aspects of Asante death rituals underscore the extent to which communities of the living and the dead are melded together. Furthermore, good Asante people who die are believed to become ancestors in their New World while bad people are simply punished for all their irresponsible deeds. In the hierarchy of authority in that world, ancestors are next in line to the smaller deities who report directly to the Supreme Being (Gyekye 1995). A good life on earth, reflected in an accompanying elaborate funeral, indicates the deceased’s ascendancy to a position of authority in the ancestral world. Ancestors are believed to be the makers of the bereaved’s destinies, by virtue of their superior authority over the living. Treating them well on their deaths encourages them to be generous in their dealings with the living. By seeking and gaining enhanced social status for a deceased person, the bereaved may gain similar status by association to the deceased.


Many a consumer researcher has argued that goods and services are means of social communication among people (e.g. Levy 1959; Mick 1986; Solomon 1983). Viewed within the contexts of ritual/symbolic consumption (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Rook 1985; Schouten 1991), death rituals have significant meanings for the dead and the bereaved beyond functional utility. In fact, death rituals and the material things associated with them may procure a particularly strong social representation of identity, for both the bereaved and the deceased (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Grainger 1998). This is facilitated by the fact that death provides the necessary quick and easy access to self-symbolizing for consumers pursuing symbolic self-completion (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982) through the frequency of death and the accompanying relaxation of social norms on death ritual occasions. Through this process, bereaved buyers of death products may employ the products’ symbolic entitlements to redefine themselvesand that is how Death Becomes the Consumer.

For the Asante, death is a welcome inevitability that indicates regeneration of a life that continues in another form beyond death (Arhin 1994; Gyekye 1995). Efforts are made to preserve a positive identity for the deceased to facilitate progress in status for the bereaved (Lawuyi 1991). This is achieved through the use of consumer identity markers during death rituals. Death rituals and related products, therefore, are perceived and conceived as vehicles for the competitive expression of status and status aspirations for the living and the dead (Cannon 1989). While they may be performed under the guise of serving the dead only, death rituals and their associated symbolism are often opportunities for social advancement in which people may aspire to brief lives of further ostentation denied them in everyday life (Cannadine 1981).

From such a perspective, the dead serve as a basis for the living to engage in conspicuous consumption for purposes of enhanced self-image and social status towards their own self-completion projects. Expensive caskets, embalming and the public display of the corpse at its best, flowers and other items supposedly for the "dearly departed", thus, provide an extended self that enhances social status for the "immortal beloved" still walking the face of the earth. If this were ot so, why would caskets be chosen for their superior padding as if comfort was of extreme importance to the corpse (cf. Metcalf and Huntington 1991)?

The increasing need for death products poses many challenges for the new millennium, which require significant research effort (Loewen Group 1997; Manus 1998; Spiegler 1995). This study is a step in the right direction as it offers preliminary insights into some of the ways that bereaved consumers symbolically consume the dead for purposes of social identity negotiations. However, the study is limited in that its general implications were derived from a small set of respondents. Additionally, the researcher’s familiarity with the Asante culture may have biased some of the interpretations drawn. To address these limitations, further research efforts are needed to provide a greater understanding of consumer behavior in the context of death.


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Sammy Bonsu, University of North Carolina, Greensboro


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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