The funeral, along with birth and marriage, is a major life ceremony in many African cultures because it encompasses the full transmission of life. The numerous rituals associated with the preparation and placement of the body, mourning, securing the destiny of the deceased, establishing a new relationship with the deceased, and restoring of communal relationships reflect an affirmation of the continuity of life. There are variations in funeral rites according to the age, marital status, and community standing of the deceased. The most elaborate funerals are held for wise, prominent elders. Funerals for those who are younger, unmarried, or childless are less intricate. Although not considered funerals, there are specific rites for children who have died because they are considered spirits who did not wish to stay in this world.
Ideas about Death
Generally speaking, there are several fundamentals to African funerals, although ethnic and aesthetic traditions differ. The first is that the spirit of the deceased person must be sent away without animosity from the earthly community. Africans acknowledge that the person no longer exists in Earthly form and must leave. Prayers said at death such as “Now we must stop thinking … about you, we bury you” … and “Oh! Father leave us, here is your stool” demonstrate this. However, the prayers continue, “We must stop thinking about you, give us everything that is good,” indicating that the living also need the protection and guidance from the newly departed.
Among the Yoruba, the part of the funeral called “Entering into a covenant with the deceased” includes a symbolic “slaying of the victim,” in which split kola nuts, provisions, and condiments are placed with the body. This is the time to say farewell and stress to the deceased that he or she is no longer an Earthly being and now must care for the family as a spirit. The deceased is not to harass anyone or engage in malicious or evil activities. Establishing that the death was indeed natural is an important rite in some funeral rituals. Among the Ndebele, the day after a person is buried, the son returns to make sure the grave is undisturbed. If it has not been disturbed, the usual funeral rituals continue. If it has, however, a diviner is consulted to determine the next steps.
Rituals for sending away the deceased address the handling of the body. In some cultures, the body is shaven, washed, and wrapped in clothing. In the past, the body could be wrapped in animal skins or even covered with bird feathers. The Ancient Egyptians are noted for their elaborate preparation of the body of the deceased. However, the Swazi are known to squeeze the fluids out of the body to slow decay. Among certain groups of Yoruba, clothing is put on the deceased backward so its soul can find its way back to the Earth to be reborn.
Among the Ndebele, if the head of the homestead dies, his body is passed through a hole in the wall, but not the door. This shows he is still part of the community. The body can be buried within the family compound, behind it, or where the person was born. Common taboos associated with burials are that it is best to avoid a funeral processional and that the body cannot be buried in cultivated land. The Dogon observe this taboo by burying their dead in caves high in the surrounding cliffs. They say that if a body is buried in the fields, the crops will not grow.
The deceased are sent away with provisions to both sustain them on their journey to the world of ancestors and spirits and while in it. It is common for an animal to be sacrificed at the death of a person. Referred to as “the beast to accompany the deceased” among the Ndebele or “the fare fowl” among the Yoruba, this sacrifice provides food and abundance to the deceased while making the road to the afterlife easy. For Ndebele men, it is an ox, for women, a goat. This meat is ritually prepared without salt and consumed by the family. Medicine to protect and sustain the family is prepared from the bones. Personal goods are also included with the body to assist the soul on its journey. Among the Yoruba, these are the clothes, fowls, and animals presented by members of the family according to status.
The rituals designed to send away the spirit of the deceased also address the needs of the living. Funerals are a time of intense public grieving. In many cultures, it is the only time when it is socially permissible for men to cry or to openly express sadness and frustration. Public grieving is expressed not only by crying, but through music, songs, and dance. There are musicians who play specific rhythms and melodies that facilitate the release of pent-up emotions and mourners enact articulate dance step to express grief. In some communities, a group of women are charged with the responsibility of weeping and wailing for the deceased because the dead have a right to their share of tears.
A New Relationship
Another rudiment of the African funeral is the establishment of a new relationship with the deceased. The rituals that mark the beginning of this relationship can occur 3 days, 40 days, 3 months, or 1 year after the burial and main funeral activities. The Yoruba ritual, called “bringing the spirit of the deceased into the house,” is performed several days after the person dies. It is held at night with no lights. A shrine is constructed in a corner of the dwelling that will serve as a place of communion between the descendents and the departed. Here descendents can speak with the departed; make offerings, covenants, and agreements; and conduct family business.
On the 40th day after burial, the spirit of the deceased is “created” in the form of an egungun. This “spirit of the deceased” appears in the community as a human dressed in a robe and symbolizes the temporary reappearance of the deceased on Earth. Three months after burial, the Ndebele gather for a ceremony named “to wash the hoes.” A special beer is brewed and used to literally wash the tools used in the burial of the deceased. A special medicine is prepared and distributed to the family.
One year after the death, and only if the deceased was married, a ceremony “calling back the soul of the departed to his own people” is held. At this time, any restrictions that were imposed because of the death, such as widows not being able to marry, are now lifted and life returns to normal.
The last characteristic of African funerals is that they affirm life. Throughout the funeral process, references are made to strengthening the life of the deceased, the family, and the community. However, it is most pronounced in the rituals that include festive music, singing, dancing, feasting, and merrymaking. The Yoruba egungun festival, which occurs at least once a year, contains such activities. The final ceremony for the deceased among the Ndebele is a festive time with singing and dancing.
- funeral rites
- Magesa, L. (1997). African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
- Myles, K. (1990). Funerary Clay Figurines in West Africa. Accra, Ghana: Organization of Museums, Monuments and Sites of Africa.
- Thomas, L.-V. (1982). La Mort Africaine: Idéologie Funéraire en Afrique Noire. Paris: Payot.