Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

Funeral rites around Africa

Article from AFRIC Editorial
In Africa, funeral rites vary with communities and cultures. Thanks to the diversity of the African society, the treatment, procedures and rites performed on the dead are different. Funeral rites also vary depending on the background of the dead or the position they held in community when they were still alive.
In western societies, funerals are very private ceremonies, reserved for family and closest friends of the deceased. On the contrary, funerals in Africa are more like public celebrations where the whole family; including extended family members, friends and even “friends of friends” come together to celebrate the “life” of their loved one who is gone to the afterlife. These celebrations also depend largely on status and cause of death.

In some cultures or religion, the Muslims for example, the dead are buried without delay, while in other cultures, there corpse is kept for a period of time during which preparations are made for the burial and death celebration.

West Africa: Ghana and Nigeria

Funerals in Ghana are peculiarity, as they are seen as a dual event; to mourn and to celebrate the life of the deceased. The more the number of people present during a funeral equals to how friendly and sociable the deceased was. Ghanaian funerals are among the most extravagant in Africa. Ghanaians spend as much as $15,000 to $20,000 on funerals. These funerals are often held on the weekends, especially Saturdays to ensure the presences of mourners and well-wishers.

Caskets used in this part of the continent are very unique and colourful. They usually represent the deceased profession or favourite object; this could range from an aircraft shaped casket to a pencil or coca cola bottle, a shoe or and animal.

After the burial the mourners celebrate the life of the deceased through song and dance. Most people dance to the tune of a Ghanaian a mix of African rhythms, jazz, brass bands.

In Nigeria, customs, traditions and religion define funeral rites. The most common religions in Nigeria are Islam and Christianity. Many faithful believe in judgement of the deceased’s soul to determine their fate afterlife. Also some traditional beliefs highlight reincarnation; where a deceased family member can be born in other households in the family.

Like in Ghana, funerals in Nigeria are also party-like, especially when the deceased is from a very wealthy family; as there is a lot of singing and dancing. During Nigerian funerals, there are uniforms for the mourners and sympathisers call “asoebi”. In case where a woman loses her spouse, she is expected to dress in black or white. Nevertheless, when a young person dies, everyone attending the funeral is expected to appear in dark colours.

Nigerian Muslims bury their dead without many delays. On the part of the Christians, they leave the deceased in the morgue for days or even weeks, while making preparations for a “befitting” burial, for fear that they may not be happy and come back to haunt the living. Also, Nigerians bury their dead to face particular directions depending on their sex. Men are buried facing the west so they can see the sunrise and women facing east so they can see the sunset and cook diner for her husband in her next life. Some families bury their dead with weapons to help fight their enemies, especially when it is suspected that the person did not die from natural causes.

After the burial, there is heavy feasting accompanied by singing and dancing. Many families come back a few years later for the “dead celebration” some sort of second burial or memorial in honour of the dead. They perform rituals and organise celebrations were family members and friends gather to celebrate.

This aspect of “dead celebration” is common in other parts of Africa. In Cameroon, during the dead celebration, some communities exhume the dead and take out their skull, which is kept in a special place in the house of the deceased. The successor of the deceased is also crowned during this period.

Common funeral rites in South Africa

South African funeral traditions are unique, as is the case with many communities in Africa. The day before the burial, there is a vigil; this is common in many Africa societies, but the specificity of South African vigils is the fact that all pictures, mirrors and any reflective object is covered and the deceased bed is removed from their rooms.

During the funeral, family members mourn their dead and also celebrate their life. In some communities, unmarried people and children are not allowed to attend funeral services. During the mourning period, a cow, ox or goat is sacrificed and the meat is used to feed the mourners. This is most common with the people of the Xhosa tribe.

In other traditions, the dead are buried with their personal belongings, so that they do not come back to haunt the living. In other places, the body is covered with cowhide before being buried. The most common thing here is that after the burial, family members, friends and well-wishers go back to the deceased’s home to share a common meal and continue celebrations.

There is a mourning period which can last at least a week. During this period, mourners are not allowed to socialize, talk or laugh too much. They wear dark colours and shave their hair as a symbol of death and new life. Widows continue mourning and shaving their hair for at least one year.

Funeral rites in Northern part Africa

The northern part of Africa is dominated by Muslims. According to their tradition, burial takes place as soon as possible. If the person dies during the day, they are buried before sunset and if they die during the night, they are buried in the morning. The body is usually washed and wrapped in white linen and buried with their faces turned to Mecca.  In some customs, women and children are not allowed to attend funerals. During the burial, a prayer leader reads a passage from the Quran. A feast is organised for those who attended the burial a few days or weeks after the burial.

Funeral rites in Europe and America

In the developed world, funerals are more like solemn events, without the loud crying, singing and dancing and feasting that make up African funerals. Funerals in this part of the world are reserved for close family members and sometimes friends. In more capitalist societies, funerals are very short and the dead are buried as soon as possible. The most common rituals in this part of the world are the viewing or visitation of the corpse; where family and friends view the dead one last time before the casket in which the person is laid is closed. This is followed by the funeral service, the procession and then burial. It should be noted that many western cultures have adopted cremation instead of the traditional burial of the body in a traditional grave.

Cremation is considered as a taboo in Africa, as it is seen as a violation of customs and traditions. This is because many Africans customs and traditions believe in life after dead, thus cremating can disrupt the process of reincarnation. Also some customs and traditions in Africa require that people from a certain rank; the likes of chiefs, notables and chief priests be buried in some particular positions (standing or sitting).

The only things that Africa and western societies share when it comes to death and funerals is the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one, the vigil and sometimes the eulogies. Aside from this, African communities consider each other as an extended family and a person’s pain is shared by the whole community. This is the reason why hundreds of people from far and wide attend funerals in Africa, to bid farewell to their lost brother or sister.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

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