By Remigius N Nwabueze
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The mistreatment of widows in Sub-Saharan Africa is both widespread and well-documented. Notorious forms of abuse include the disinheritance of widows, degrading and cruel mortuary practices, and compulsory levirate marriages.2 Among these pernicious practices, however, little attention has been directed at the frequent denial of a widow’s right of sepulchre, including, in particular, her right to control the time, place, and manner of her husband’s burial. The normative description of sepulchral rights underestimates their emotional and socio-spiritual importance. In order to begin to cope with her loss, a widow needs control over the burial of her deceased husband. The significance of these dimensions for widows in Africa can be seen in recent cases in which African widows have fought fiercely for their right to control the disposition of their husbands’ remains.
In contrast to that of most common law countries in Africa, the United States does protect the sepulchral rights of widows. A widow in the United States enjoys sepulchral priority, unless her husband had made a clear, definite, and provable expression of interest as to the manner of his burial prior to his death. In African countries, customary law often prevents widows from exercising their sepulchral rights. While customary law is to blame for most violations, it is not the only villain—statutes and common law inherited from England are also complicit.