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Ebony Vaults: An Earthly Paradise For The Dead

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ParkTHE road leading to Ebony Vaults at Ikoyi from Alagbon police station is a tarred one. The one kilometer road oozes wave of heat in the hot November afternoon as I drive into the newly built cemetery through a tall gate made of marble and wrought iron. The gate towers above everything else in the surrounding with its artistic distinction. There are four of such gates at different sections of the cemetery. Each is as wide as it is tall, like an entrance leading to a well-protected city.

At the main entrance, a smartly dressed security man raises his right hand in salute, then points to the parking lot where I eventually pull over. The parking lot, capable of accommodating 200 cars, is lined with a fleet of hearses such as Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes-Benz and other exotic funeral cars. Under the wide canopy where they are parked, the automobiles compliment the grandiloquent visage of the property.

From the car park, I walk through a paved way hedged by well-manicured flowers. Close by, a water sprayer sends forth micro pellets of water in different direction of green grass. That happens all day, and it explains the verdant greenness of the cemetery. At a distance, a white Japanese fountain also spills forth sparkling water over a small group of orange-color aquarium fish. The shoal basks in the luxury of cold water despite the burning November sun.
The paved way leads into a reception office where a pleasant looking lady warmly welcome the visitors. Her geniality comes close to that offered at five star hotel where staffers are trained to pamper visitors regardless of their station in life. Mr. Dehinde Harrison, the CEO of Ebony Vaults is going to arrive late for the meeting, but the front desk lady makes the long wait seem shorter.

When he eventually appears, Mr. Harrison is full of apology. It is not his ways to keep visitors waiting, especially visitors on appointment. He may have learnt that lesson over 30 years of attending to families of deceased who eagerly want to get their folks buried as soon as burial day is set. And they often brooks no delay. Within those years, Mr. Harrison has buried many dignitaries perhaps more than anybody else in funeral business in Nigeria: royalty, politicians, successful professionals, foreigners, name it, he has buried them all. His list include the great Owelle of Onisha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe; Former First Lady, Stella Obasanjo; Former governor of old Ondo State, Chief Adekunle Ajasin; Ambassador Mathew Mbu; Sam Mbakwe, General Theophilus Danjuma’s mother including President Goodluck Jonathan’s younger brother.

Many of these people prefer to be buried on their own private property, but many more would love to be buried in a decent cemetery where their loved one could visit during anniversary and share quiet moment with the departed.

“We want to give dignity to the dead. And we want people to be comfortable with the idea of death and burial process. Death is an inevitable end for all. But we can make that experience comfortable for everyone,” says Mr. Harrison.

And the Ebony boss has been doing that in the last three decades until he set up Ebony Vaults at Atan, Yaba in 2003. Ebony Vaults at Yaba is located on the Lagos mainland, few meters away from University of Lagos, Akoka campus, but a new cemetery has been developed on the Lagos Island at Ikoyi which is a lot bigger. There are almost 1000 vaults on two hectares of land occupied by the cemetery. The space is segmented into high-density and low-density burial sites. There are also medium-density and special sites. The high-density area has a longer cluster of vaults while low-density consists of fewer vaults.

The middle-density area is of range between the high and low-density area. What this means is that, the occupants of vault in any of these burial sites will have companies, but the number of companies will vary according to the burial site selected. The only space where the dead are buried without a company are the special vaults. It is a self-contained kind of apartment for the dead as against mass burial ground. But Mr. Dehinde says the segmentation is much less about class distinction than about choice. “Some people prefer private space when they come to spend a moment with their beloved ones. To some, it does not matter.”

In those special vault areas, there is a sitting space for visitors. The family members are even allowed to keep keys to the site. So they are at liberty to come visit at anytime with exclusive access to the grave.

In addition, vaults at Ebony Garden come either as single or as double to serve especially the need of couples who prefer to be buried together at the same spot. According to Mr. Harrison, many couples opt for that option. And the idea of double vaults on a spot makes sense for the economy of land space, though Mr. Harrison appears less bothered about land scarcity at least for now. The idea of double vaults also fulfills a biblical injunction, that what God has joined together let’s no man (in this case, death) put asunder. That is not the sentiment of Mr. Harrison anyway. For him, he is just providing service for people whose preferences are varied.

And just one more thing, the arrangement of Ebony Garden also accommodates the religious sensitivity of Nigerians even in death. This is illustrated by the design of burial sites at Ebony Garden. There are separate spaces designed for Muslim and Christians. At the Muslim burial ground, there is a section where the family and friends can perform ablution in readiness for prayer. The prayer ground is properly signposted by crescent to indicate the East where the Muslims are expected to face while praying. Also there is a reserved area for Christian service. And at request, the in-house clergy can be arranged to conduct funeral service.

With all these convenience, a space at Ebony Garden should come close to a king’s ransom. It is certainly not a place for the lowly or the poorly paid. Mr. Harrison pauses and then laughs. “Not at all. We are here not only for the high and mighty in the society, but for every ordinary Nigerian who understands the need to make plans for his or her burial.” He thinks if insurance system works better in Nigeria, every citizen could get a descent burial at discounted rate. “Abroad, people save towards their burial just as they do towards their wedding or any important event”.
Tell him he is doing all these for money and he would agree – partly. “But more importantly I am doing this because I believe we can bury our dead better than we do at present. People don’t have to be poorly disposed because they are dead. Every single dead person deserve dignity in death. And that is what we are not good at doing in Nigeria. And that is what we do well at Ebony. So if we get paid for doing a good job, that is a fair deal.”

It is a bit difficult to fault his reason especially when he narrates how he started the business. Ebony CEO grew up at Odunlami in Lagos Island, the place known for making caskets in Lagos. “As a child, I wake up every morning seeing caskets, and when I go to sleep at night, what I see before bed time is caskets. Casket has always being part of my life. I eat on it, sleep on it and do all sort.”

But he never thought he would make career of it until he graduated from University of…with BSc in mechanical engineering. He later worked for automobile distribution company, Mandilas and Volkwagen. Then he traveled to Europe and saw how people in Europe bury their dead. “I saw funeral homes looking very nice and told myself I wanted to do something like this.” That was how the journey of catering for the dead began for Ebony boss.

Within those years, he has taken several courses in funeral service. “Every year I attend workshop with other funeral directors across the globe. I recently returned from a conference in Indiana and United States where funeral directors share their experience with others.” This kind of training provides him greater insight to do the dead good. And it is such insight that led him to establishing Ebony Vaults at Ikoyi.

Mr. Harrison is 58 years old. How would he want to be buried when death beckons? He tilts his head a bit upwards and stares into space for seconds, “Well, I will leave that worry to my children. It is their business, not mine. They could have had their plan already, who knows?”


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