Death

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Ngewo, the Supreme God of the Mende people, sent two messages to people: life, carried by the dog, and death, carried by the toad. The dog rested along the way and had a meal. The toad never stopped, thus reaching humans first with the message of death. According to many African mythologies, death was not part of the original state of humans, but arrived later by a message from God, which was usually subverted, slow, stammered, misdirected, wrong, or late. Other stories explain death arriving as a result of man's indebtedness, arrogance, tardiness, or disobedience. Although death was not part of the original human condition, or maybe because of it, traditional African societies are laden with rituals, beliefs, and practices that acknowledge, affirm, grieve, and heal the inevitable effects of death. Death stands between the human and spiritual worlds. Without it, there would be no distinction between the two. With it comes a disruption of harmony. Therefore, rituals associated with death are designed to restore order.
For the community, the age and circumstance of a person's death are important. Natural deaths are rare with the exception of extreme old age. Africans often suspect malevolence, from humans or spirits, as the first cause. The prolonged suffering, pain, or sickness that may accompany death is often an indicator of malevolent activities. Typically, bodies are buried in family compounds, although in some cultures they may be left in the forest. Rituals consist of preparation of the body and periods of public grieving, which include singing and dancing, settling estates, and transferring family eldership. These rituals are spaced out over days, weeks, and months after death. The deaths of children, the unmarried, or the childless are treated differently and traditionally do not receive full burial rites. Those who die by lightning also receive special treatment. In contemporary times, death rituals may reflect the influence of the modern world as well as Christian and Islamic traditions.
The transition into the spiritual realm starts during life, when individuals are moral and generous. Thus, they can look forward to continuing to be a member of their family as an ancestor. Ancestors can offer protection and guidance and, in return, are given life through the acts of remembrance by their families. It is believed that once an individual is no longer mentioned by name or remembered, they become a part of the collective immortality. Those who do not transition into the world of spirits as an ancestor are those who are not properly mourned or remembered, did not have children, or engaged in evil practices. These dead will not be in any position to assist the family and, in fact, can cause misfortune to the community in general.
The Fon practice of Vodun has, at its core, the premise of deification of the ancestors, that is, increasing status of those who died. In this system, the circumstances of a person's death are not a barrier to improving their status in the land of ancestors. It only takes the commitment of time resources on the part of living to help them.
Generally speaking, in the African religious tradition, death is conceived of as a rite of passage into the spiritual realm. Because spirits are very much present, although partly invisible, death constitutes another mode of existence, rather than an end of life. In fact, because many African people believe in reincarnation, it can be said that life is born out of death and that death is the prolongation of life.

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Further Reading

  • Abrahamsson, H. (1977). Origin of Death in African Mythology. New York: Arnon Press.
  • Bamunoba, Y. K. (1979). La mort dans la vie africaine. Paris: Présence Africaine.
  • Egberongbe, P. W. (2003). African Traditional Religion: We Are No Pagans. Lagos, Nigeria: Nelson.
  • Wiredu, K., and Gyekye, K. (1992). Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies. Washington, DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.