Isabel Bredenbröker | Project | Vita | Publications 

The Materiality and Economy of Commemoration in Ghana - Display, Exchange and Creation of Wealth


Social Anthropology with focus on Africa
Supervision: Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn

My research aims to provide a comprehensive ethnography of economic and material aspects surrounding commemoration in a Ghanaian village with the intention of describing these operations as an economic system.

Contemporary Ghanaian society displays a multitude of public icons commemorating the loss of a family member, public person or community member. Posters of all sizes and different materials announce the name of the deceased, their age and date of their  death, atop studio photographs of the deceased with different emotionally emphatic exclamations such as “What a shock!” or “Call to Glory”. These posters may take quite expensive forms: printed in colour on long-lasting vinyl to be hung on the façade of houses years after the actual death. Other long-lasting displays of commemoration are for example T-Shirts or mugs of the same kind. This relatively recent phenomenon will serve as the entry point into an exploration of the materiality of death in Ghana.

Taking the iconographic posters as a starting point, my research will further explore aspects of what essentially is an economy in its own right, as well as a set of social practices around death and commemoration. A preliminary research question could be: how material and social values produce and are produced by materiality connected to commemoration? In what way do artefacts, materials and money create economic and social relations as well as differentiation? In what way do they act as agents of change or conservation?

Material practices that will inform the final study will include a detailed investigation into the binding of grave wreaths or the craft of the coffin makers, the festive collection of money related to commemoration as well as the general funding of funerals. Different material practices, objects and crafts associated with death make aspects of consumption, generation and representation of social status as well as social obligations through gifting, returning, donating and purchasing visible. Families engage in conspicuous consumption in order to put up impressive burial ceremonies. These expenses generate social status as well as obligations on the parts of the invitees.

An ethnographic focus on the material aspects, alongside ritual practices performed during the funeral and wake, aims at exploring the economic aspects and values that are produced in commemoration. Beyond the compliance with social expectations, fueling entrepreneurial activities and fulfilling religious demands, the examination of material culture and crafted items can also provide a deeper insight into the functioning of such a multifaceted economy. For example, how are issues of longevity and permanence represented by the use of plastic for wreaths? Similarly, does the extended presence of iconographic posters in public stand in opposition to ideas of letting go, perishing and disappearing? The property of materials as matter which is subject to change but evades birth and death can set a new focus when studying material negotiations of death. This focus links into other issues such as symbolism, ritual, religion, the body and visual culture.