My take on funerals in Africa

Funerals in Africa can be quite a crowd puller. In countries south of the Sahara, they tend to go something like this. When a person dies, relatives and friends from far and wide gather at the deceased’s home or a home of a relative designated as the ‘funeral’ or ‘mourning’ house, where mourners stay until the deceased is buried, often within a week or two. In some West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria, however, certain tribes often delay the burial of their loved one for weeks or even months, in order to ensure that they are given a proper send-off when the time is right.

“Death rituals in Africa are deeply rooted in the cultural beliefs, traditions, and indigenous religions of the continent. They are guided by Africans' view of existence after death and the power and role of the deceased ancestor. Rituals evolved through the infusion of Christianity, Islam and modern changes, but traditional themes survive in Africa and among people of African descent in the Caribbean and the Americas.”1

In many cultures, family and friends bring donations in the form of supplies, food and money to the home where the vigil is held. In most cases funerals and vigils are accompanied by distinctive loud wailing that announces bereavement to the rest of the community. The Bameleki in Cameroon for example, are even known to hire professional mourners for their funerals. It must be noted here, however, that the practice of hiring professional mourners is not only limited to some African countries, but is also prevalent in Asia in countries like India and Taiwan.

In southern Africa, after the burial has taken place, mourners gather at the home where the vigil is held to eat a meal together, but before they do so, they all wash off the graveyard dust from the hands and / or feet at the gate or doorway of the home. This is not a practice for sanitary reasons alone. The ritual of washing hands at entrance to the home is also believed to ward off any bad ‘air’ or spirits that might have been unknowingly carried along from the burial site.

Customs observed during the period of mourning include dressing in black, red or even white as the traditional colour of mourning. Western clothes are worn as well as traditional clothes in the typical mourning colours or colour coordinated prints specifically bought for the funeral. Norms also put a limit on socialising and restrain loud talking or laughter. Following the funeral, family members may cut their hair or beards as another sign of respect for the deceased.

When it comes to widows, the mourning rites are stepped up a notch. Depending on the tribe or culture, a widow is expected to be in mourning for a period of between six to twelve months. Although most of the overt rituals are dying away in modern society, during her period of mourning, a widow may be expected to dress in a certain way, for instance in long black outfits or to cover her head with a scarf constantly.
After the prescribed time, the family and relatives gather for another ceremony, at times called a ‘memorial’ as a final public farewell to the deceased. It is often about this time that families conclude on the handling of the deceased’s estate, or as is this case at times, court disputes erupt because of disgruntled parties. It is also usually after this ceremony when widows or widowers may be ‘released’ and permitted to remarry if they so choose. Hmmm… that’s my continent for you.

©Mwanja Ng'anjo

1 Ruddock, Vilma. Death Rituals in Africa.