Cover of John Parker's In My Time of Dying held against a rural coastal landscape with scattered gravestones

Review of John Parker’s In My Time of Dying: a History of Death and the Dead in West Africa (Princeton University Press, 2021)

by Amelia Storey

On a recent visit to my local arts centre, I found myself looking down onto their café’s courtyard from the first floor exhibition room. To my astonishment, I realised that the café tables were positioned immediately next to tombstones – close enough to lean your chair back against. I recognised then that the large tree shading the outdoor dining area was a yew tree, the ancient companion to any graveyard in this country.

Many miles south, my close friend is in Ghana for research. Despite her roots in the country, she expresses bemusement to me over the phone. “Death is everywhere!” Billboards face the highways announcing the passing of local good folk and the time and place of their funerals. Saturday is ‘funeral day,’ and it isn’t uncommon to attend the funeral of someone whom you didn’t know in life.

A direct comparison of these two anecdotes would undoubtedly oversimplify some complex histories. Nevertheless, the brushing under the carpet of death (or, in this case, under the café tables) stands in stark contrast to its overt publicising and appeal to communal grief on the flipside. The culture around death in Ghana has attracted comment, outrage and interest since Europeans first interacted with the Gold Coast, from contemporary instances of human sacrifice to modern day flamboyant personalised coffins. It is the history of death in the Gold Coast, Asante and the Northern Territories which forms the subject of John Parker’s latest publication, In My Time of Dying. With unswerving attention to detail, Parker unpicks defining beliefs, customs and changes relating to death and the dead.

Billboard announcing a local woman’s death, Kumasi, Ghana. Published with permission.

Parker has taken up an elusive subject – “the invisible, looming antimatter of human existence” (p.6) – which he states from the offset lacks a linear history, but is comprised instead of beliefs and ideas that are historical. This challenge is seemingly undertaken with ease, tackled calmly by extensive use of fascinating sources and characteristic thoughtful analysis. Such a vast number of beliefs and customs are explored and touched upon that one is rightfully left with the impression of a rich, complex history, or histories, of death in the region. Within this though, two main arguments shine through. The first: that death had an omnipresence that materialised as a continual and potent conversation between the dead and the living. Secondly, the history of death and the dead in this region was an active, mobile and receptive one. If you will, a living one.

One of the defining beliefs across the region was the belief in an afterlife, although what this might look like has varied over time – with some examples of people believing they “come to the country of the Whites” in death (p.22). It is the idea that the deceased go on in some capacity that underlines the importance of proper conduct towards the dead, from initial grieving and burial rites onwards, in a prolonged exchange with the ancestors. The ‘cult of the ancestors’ so often referred to in relation to West African beliefs is revealed here in a new light. Rather than an abstract worship vaguely directed towards a realm of the anonymous deceased, Parker shows instead a mutual dependency that was the responsibility of the living to keep in harmony. For male migrants from the Northern Territories, it was understood that “their fathers’ spirits would have killed them if they had not [come home]” once there was no one else to honour the ancestral shrines (p.290). That the ancestors held sway not just in the land of the dead but amongst the living further underpins the reasons for exactitude when it came to the dead.

Precision was of particular urgency in the putting to rest of those whose deaths were transgressive in some way, such as women who died during pregnancy, childbirth or attempted abortion, suicides, certain accidental deaths such as drowning, those thought to be witches, and young infants. Where one could become distracted by the seeming brutality of the rites for such individuals, as earlier European onlookers certainly did, Parker approaches with a sensitivity which leads to a far more illuminating historical understanding of such practices and the reasoning behind them.  

The reaction of Europeans to the mortuary customs of West Africans forms a large part of the book, reflecting not only a colonially motivated obsession with the African body, influenced by the history of the Atlantic slave trade, but also the presence of death in West African life and culture. The discarding and sometime disfiguration of transgressive deaths was one instance of perceived ‘native brutality’ lumped with human sacrifices in high status burials and display of enemy heads. In a more persistent theme, public displays of mourning, elaborate funerals and house burial were taken as the most repugnant display of ‘heathenism,’ the antithesis of upright Christian Victorian society. No student of colonial history will be shocked by this. It is Parker’s subtle articulation of the grey areas in this battle of tradition versus ‘progress’ that gives a more rounded understanding of how the history of death evolved at this time. The role of the written word, how the African and Afro-European elite utilised it to write about death, and the interactions between the bereaved and colonial law all uncover the intricacies of the changing landscape of death. Resisting the temptation to pigeonhole progressives or ‘civilisers’ and traditionalists or ‘heathens,’ Parker presents instead a history residing as much in a stone-filled coffin in a gridded-out cemetery as in the law books and obituaries.

That the history of death is a living one is an argument in keeping with Parker’s work on the trans-regional movement of gods and anti-witchcraft movements, which also serves to demonstrate the mobility of beliefs. Far from a straightforward creed in a “pristine precolonial time warp” (p.187), the history of beliefs and customs around death are shown to have been greatly tied up in ongoing historical movements and phenomena of the times: interactions with Europeans on the coast, the Atlantic slave trade and colonial governance, as well as economic shifts, migration, Christianity and all the social implications that these had. So influenced was the realm of death by contemporary events expressly because it was an intrinsic aspect of identity.

It is the timely return to personal identities which continually reminds the reader of the (ironically) pulsing beat of the history that Parker is attempting to convey, in all its messiness, contradiction and surprise. The great lengths that Parker goes to incorporate the personal makes this a defining history – one which shows the literal great lengths that West Africans went to for their dead.  If their underlying motive was to keep their family close, but their ancestors closer, then perhaps supping over the bones of the dead at my local arts centre is not in such great conflict with West African thought after all.

Amelia Storey


Having returned to SOAS after two years as a gardener in an intentional community, I have recently graduated with a BA in History. My interests lie mainly at the intersections of gender history and the history of religion and belief, particularly in Africa.

SOAS History Blog, Department of History, Religions and Philosophy, SOAS University of London

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