The urban renewal agenda of the Ogun State government has resulted in the demolition of structures, old and new. Most recently, community cemetries have been affected, which means that dozens of graves have to be opened, long-dead bodies lifted out and re-buried elsewhere. By Pelu Awofeso

What would you do if, due to a government urban renewal agenda, you have to dig up a buried relative from its resting place? It so happens that that is the reality that families in Oke Ijehun area of Abeokuta (in Ogun State) are facing this moment.

Residents have more or less a two-week window to open the graves of their long-dead relatives buried in the local cemetery, by Mortuary Junction (Off Moshood Abiola Way), and re-bury them elsewhere so as to give way to a road expansion project. So far, some families have already completed the process, relocating the decomposed remains of their loved ones to spots a couple of metres inwards from the main road. A tractor has already crushed parts of a first row of vaults, some of which already open and emptied, are strewn with bone fragments, clinical gloves and masks.

The Rooster

Timilehin has just supervised the second burial of his dad who died, aged 80, and was buried 11 years ago in 2002. To do this, it is customary that a rooster has to be sacrificed before the grave can be opened up. “We still found the same cap we buried him with right on his head,” he says in calm tone of voice that surprises me. “Even his shoes were still on his feet. His eyes were no longer there, of course, but I still recognize the man we lifted out of that place as my dead father.”

The casket bearing Timilehin father’s remains had largely decomposed, so it was left in the grave and covered with broken block fragments. A pair of bricklayers put finishing touches to the work of re-sealing work the substitute grave, which contains Timilehin’s late mother, buried in 2003 but on a spot far removed from the soon-to-be-built highway, so it is unaffected by the relocation notice.

“If you were here earlier in the day, you would have seen many people at work all over the place,” he says, the grey stubs on his face wet with sweat. Indeed, a picture published on the cover page of The Sun newspaper on the day I visit shows a couple of men wearing dust-masks and lab coats standing over some graves as motorists and passers-by look on in amazement.

“I lift out the dead bodies with my bare hands,” says Rasheed, who helped Timilehin transfer his dad. “There is nothing to fear. It’s no big deal.”

Further to the right, a group of young boys in their twenties are busy renovating an old grave, which is clearly unaffected by the evacuation notice. Next to where they are working, however, a man buried five years ago, in 2008, has just been re-interred. His widow, comfort, a retired business woman in her sixties stands nearby, holding an umbrella above her head. I ask to know if she feels angry or dissatisfied with her having to re-bury her late husband.

“I am not in the least,” she tells me with such cheerfulness that startles me. “I was more than happy to see my husband again. We dressed him up afresh, I paid for a new casket and we’ve given him a second burial.”

Rather than being bitter, most of the families affected by this grave-digging sessions praise the current government efforts at physically developing the state.

The Widow

“We see signs of development in other parts of Abeokuta—new roads and new bridges. We are only too glad to see that our own area is also going to witness similar attention,” Comfort says, waving her hands back and forth, obviously excited. “Governor Ibikunle Amosun is not doing this for selfish reasons. What he is doing will favour the whole community, and because he has our overall interests at heart we don’t begrudge him in any way.”

About the author: Awofeso is a recent winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalists Awards (tourism category). He has published three travel books about his various travels across Nigeria. He lives in Lagos, SW Nigeria.