The Funeral of William Onyeabor

by Eric Welles-Nystrom

William Onyeabor passed away on January 16, 2017. We were invited to attend his funeral, and it was one of the greatest and most unusual events I ever witnessed.

Igbo burials can be lavish affairs, and the funeral often takes place several months after the person has passed away—this is to permit as many guests as possible to attend, and to make sure the arrangements will be as grand as can be imagined. Because of Mr. Onyeabor’s status as a leader in many fields in his community, (and also an important business leader, and an appointed Justice of Peace)—his burial was held on his own land, in front of his house, the great “Ezechukwu Palace”.

I arrived in Nigeria a few days prior, and it immediately felt very strange being there. I had been to Nigeria many times at this point, but always on the occasion to visit him. Being there without him felt incredibly unnerving to me. The days leading up to the funeral consisted of heavy preparations and services for his immediate family and friends. I spent most of this time wandering around the palace on my own, looking at his old equipment and the numerous great photos that are displayed around the house. It was something I’d always dreamt of doing since my first visit many years ago—and now I was able to, but for all the wrong reasons. Though the house was full of people, it felt so empty and sad to be there.

As the sun began to set, I went outside and to the back of the palace, to an area I’d never been before. An older woman was preparing food, with younger men. I then went upstairs to the terrace, to look at the beautiful fields surrounding the house. There, I was delighted to find Jules Elong. Jules is from Cameroon and had been one of the musicians Mr. Onyeabor had recorded with in the 80’s (he’d played on the album “Anything You Sow”, and the song “When The Going is Smooth & Good”). He told me “Willy took me when I was just a young boy, he was almost like a father to me”. He continued, “you know, musically he had the best ear. Everything was in his mind, and he just composed it by humming. He kept us on lock for months until you played like he envisioned. It was very tough and many musicians didn't like it. I was patient, and so he liked me a lot”. For many years now we’ve been trying to find anyone who played with Mr. Onyeabor during those years. I wish it had been under different circumstances.

A few days later, in the early morning of Friday, May 26, the funeral services officially began at the local mortuary, in Enugu. For an Igbo man, the honorable final resting place is his ancestral village. So, from the mortuary the body would be “brought back home, for his final rest”. Standing together with his family, close relatives and what were called “well wishers”—people who were not related by blood, but had been given a special level of appreciation by the family (this included myself)—we waited for Mr. Onyeabor’s body to be released. It was an intense and strange kind of limbo, stirring the feeling that ‘as long as this hasn’t begun, this hasn’t actually happened’. As time went on, the sun rose higher in the sky and it began getting warmer and warmer. I drifted through the few areas with shade, looking at all of the beautiful people who had gathered here: there seemed to be many funerals in Enugu on this day, and everyone was dressed differently. Whenever you visit Nigeria, it is easy to think this must be the best dressed country in the world.

When it finally was our turn, it was incredibly humid and felt close to one hundred degrees. On behalf of the family, I had been asked to document the day, so I could share with people elsewhere. It was something I was very happy to do—I’ve tried to take any chance I can to share the beauty and magic of this place (and of Mr. Onyeabor himself), whenever I’ve had the chance. At the same time, it left me with mixed feelings. What do you film and what do you not film? And, when you decide to film—how do you process what you're actually experiencing? The purpose of my trip had been to mourn and to pay my own respects to him. Sadly it felt like I often had to put that aside.

After his family signed him out from the morgue, a group of elegant, young pallbearers arrived by his casket. Outside, their counterparts in a marching band began to play—beautiful horns to a wonderfully irregular beating of drums. They removed their hats for prayers, and then lifted up the great casket and began marching, dancing slowly to the beat of the drum, through the mortuary grounds, to Mr. Onyeabor’s hearse—a shining, white custom Rolls Royce casket car. Along the way, people chanted, sang and said goodbye, filming on their phones. It was amazing.

As part of a long cortege, we then began driving through town. We first stopped at Mr. Onyeabor’s former offices in the center of town—the place I had arrived at the very first time I came to see him—for prayers and for him to ‘say goodbye’ before heading towards his village, outside of town. Along the way I saw several roadside billboards announcing his death and the funeral date. As we approached the village, people stopped and waved, and some even sang “When the Going is Smooth and Good… Hiya! Hiya! Hiya! It was wonderful. For many here, he was a very important person who will hopefully be remembered for a long time to come.

At the palace, tents had been erected throughout the compound and in the surrounding fields, and thousands of people were waiting for his return. There was a heavy security presence as the hearse pulled up, and commotion as people wanted to get as close to the hearse as possible. The pallbearers carried him into one of the front rooms of the palace, while hundreds of people pushed outside trying to get in. I squeezed myself through the crowd and was ushered inside by the family, who had gathered around the casket with a large group of priests. Much of the palace had been renovated for the occasion, and this room in particular was spectacular and unlike anything I’d ever seen—it was dressed in white satin and decorated with colorful, flashing lights. In the center of the room a pedestal had been built, on top of which laid the casket. I was told this was the first “laying-in-state”, and the moment for his family to say goodbye. This was perhaps the most emotional and intense moment of the day. It was like you could reach out and touch the pressure in the air. The poor pallbearers were sweating profusely, but finally getting a break. From the outside, we heard the crowds of people trying to get in.

After this, the casket was brought out to a special tent in front of the palace, for his second “laying-in-state”. This commenced the public ceremonies and a number of speeches: first by his children and the head priest, and then by myself. Dressed in the traditional suit for the “well wishers” the family had prepared for me, I nervously tried my best to explain what Mr. Onyeabor meant to people in other parts of the world. More speeches then followed by guests—including local dignitaries, chiefs and politicians, further members of the church, and various sundry from his local village and the town of Enugu—before he was finally laid to rest in a grave just in front of the palace. Again, I was documenting, while trying to say my own last goodbyes.

In Igbo funerals, a great amount of work is put into celebrating the deceased and providing entertainment for the guests who have come to pay their respects. For the family of Mr. Onyeabor there were no shortcomings in what length they would go to honor their beloved father. Thousands of people had been welcomed into their home for days on end. And after everyone was served food, one piece of entertainment followed the next: a famous Nigerian comedian had been flown in for stand-up comedy. A dance-group followed, who performed to a set of Nigerian pop-music. In between, a house-band and DJ covered Mr. Onyeabor’s music. There was even a clown just for the kids, and various moments of gift-giving: at one-point a small stampede almost broke out over special commemorative gift and award-bibles. (Personally I wish I could have snagged more of the lovely program the family had made for the day - just check out the great photos of young Willy!)

As the day went on, I began to wander the palace again on my own. I love this place and have always loved coming here - looking at his musical equipment up close, and thinking of when he recorded the music I’ve come to love so much. The place itself is also quite spectacular—from the pool on the ground floor and the helipad on the roof, to the living room with the twelve pillars, (one for each apostle), and that grand staircase featuring those many beautiful photos from his life. He always said that he trusted me with what I shared from there and that he believed in the work we did for him. With his blessing, I hope you will enjoy the rare opportunity of seeing some of these images, and appreciate some of the magic they hold.

Rest in peace William Onyeabor.