Burial of the Dead

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It is generally accepted in Africa that the dead will be buried. There is no extensive tradition of cremation of the dead. If a person who dies is not buried in the Earth, he or she might be left in a tree or hidden in a cave, but burning a corpse is unheard of in most societies. Those who have violated the values and norms of society are often banished in death away from the common burial area.
There is a communal attachment quality to the idea of burial of the dead. The dead person remains a member of the family and has force that will be used in support of the living community. Therefore, the death is not considered an individual experience, and the burial of the dead must be in the community near the living so the ancestor can influence life. In fact, once death has been announced, the entire community is called into action because the dead is not an individual isolated from community, but a real part of other people. In some traditions, if a man dies, his wives are stripped of their clothes by their sisters, who then cover the wives with ashes. The women are instructed not to drink, eat, sleep, or speak until their husband is buried.
One finds many styles of burial in African traditional religion, including lying on the back with arms folded in the Ausar position, burying the dead in crouching positions, lying down facing west or east if female, and standing inside the trunk of live trees, in holes in rocks, or in specially constructed tombs. All of these forms of burial have appeared in all regions of the continent.
Burial of the dead normally takes place at a special time depending on the conditions of the society. For example, if a person has great wealth, then certain conditions must be met, including the feeding of the living, and this might mean that the burial will not take place as soon as it would have otherwise. In most societies, the dead are buried with many of their gifts and possessions. Since the days of ancient Egypt, this has been the tradition of most African burials. Usually, a procession to the place of burial is led by the relatives of the dead person, and when they get to the burial spot, there is dancing and singing. The corpse follows the relatives as women fan the body, still with face in hands, and the name of the dead is said one final time, never to be stated again. Among the Azande, a member of the family recites the name and deeds of the deceased one last time before the corpse is entered into the grave.
The burial of a deceased seals the permanent attachment of an individual to his or her ancestral land. Expressions among Africans such as “she has gone to her home,” “he has moved to his village,” and so forth establish one's place of birth as one's ancestral home to which the person returns. It underscores the relationship among the individual, the people, the land, and the reality of deathlessness.

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Further Reading

  • Jomo, K. (1962). Facing Mount Kenya. New York: Vintage.