Burial/Death Rituals in African Cultures

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Burial/DeathRituals in African Cultures

Everyliving human has a limited lifespan on Earth and will eventually die.Death denotes the process of the cessation to live the end of allbiological functions that physically and mentally support anorganism once death occurs, the heart stops, and it cannot berestarted. Murder, diseases or old age are the common causes ofdeath. Human death brings sadness to other people since the deceasedthey once associated with departs forever. It is believed that apartfrom the physical body of human being, there is a soul which cancontinue to live after death, moves into another body, or cease toexist. Africa has varied traditions when it comes to death (Irish,Kathleen and Vivian 37) Most African people show high regards for thedead, perceiving them as spiritual beings or ancestors who must berespected through funeral rituals. Funeral rituals are done in manycustoms in which some may cremate the dead bodies, or they are buriedin graves or tombs. Some cultures have a plot of land for graves onlyi.e. graveyard or cemetery, while sea burial happens in marinecommunities where the living sink the body into the sea. Likewise,mountain people may hang their coffins in the woods while others mayleave the body on the mountain scavengers to feed on, and theybelieve such scavengers carry the dead people’s souls to heavens(Maddrell and James 49). Therefore, the paper examines the burial anddeath ritual African cultures to appreciate its diversity.


Accordingto many African religions, life does not terminate with death butrather, it progresses in the next royal domain where the deceased areconsidered to be ancestors believed to communicate with the livingthrough spiritual cues of dreams and vision. Africans’ main aim oflife is to become an ancestor when they die, so the dead people aregiven proper burial rites followed by some religious ceremonies tohonor them and ensure they live peacefully in their invisible world.If the rituals are not done, the late is believed to persist as awandering ghost likely to endanger the living people in their visibleworld. However, sorcerers and witches are disregarded as part of theancestors (highly valued by African communities) by being deniedproper burial. Most African cultures believe that the dead peoplehave more power than the living and through proper burial rites, theysecure protection from the spirits of the dead (Magesa 186-187).

Whendeath occurs, according to African culture, people start the ritualby organizing the homestead, followed by assembling to pay the lastrespect to the departed. In this preparation, all reflectivesurfaces, including mirrors, windows, and water are covered so thatthe dead person is not able to view himself. Some windows are alsocoated with ashes and dust, and pictures are tilted to stand facingthe wall to avoid reflection (Irish et al. 41). The dead person’sbed is often removed from the bedroom in most cultures, with thebereaved woman sitting on the floor and vigils are held through thenight for the whole community to pay respect and offer condolences tothe deceased family. Some communities also have mourners who willcome to the village and convey loud, distinctive cries. Similarly,people are assigned different tasks e.g. cooking and fetching waterand firewood in preparation for use during the funeral process(Jindra and Joël Noret 207).

Inmost African cultures, deceased individuals are believed to come backand cause commotions among the living. To make such comebacksimpossible or difficult, their bodies are removed through a hole orwindow and not by the use of the door, and zigzag parts are drawn onthe way to the burial site tree branches or twigs are also thrown,and some people may even cut off the corpse legs. For othercommunities, dead bodies are buried near or next to their homesteadso that the late may easily return to the homestead at will. Africanpeople normally prefer to bury the dead as soon as possible so thatthey could join the ancestors. However, this may be delayed when somefamily members stay far away from home. The day prior to the burial,the body is taken to the homestead ahead of sunset and set in thebedroom. During the night a vigil occurs, and a killing ritual isexecuted for ancestors since it is deemed that blood should be shedto shun other misfortunes (Magesa 189-190).

Onthe day of burial, people sing and dance at the burial site. That isdone early in the morning when witches are still sleeping since theyare perceived to take corpses and use them for their evil plans inthe afternoons. Women and children are not allowed to attend theburials in some communities. Dead people are buried on family land ornear their home and not on planting fields since it is believed thatplants won’t grow in the fields afterward. Usually, the dead bodyis wrapped in the deceased popular clothes (for some cultures clothesmaybe new while in others, old), and covered with slaughtered animalskin. Some are buried with personal belongings to facilitate thejourney to the invisible world. An ox is killed at the burial site toaccompany the dead and protect the family. The deceased family staystogether at a side of the grave where they are forbidden from usingvulgar language (Maddrell and James 59-60).

Afterthe funeral, people normally go back to the home of the departed fora funeral feast during which a cleansing tradition is performed atthe entrance of the residence where everybody is expected to wash thedust before entering the house of the departed. In some Africancultures, mourning may continue for a week after the funeral, withthe bereaved family neither socializing nor engaging in sexualactivities. Some family members may wear black clothes while othersshave their hair (Magesa 193).

TheMost Interesting Findings about the Topic

Onefinding that was so interesting about the topic related to the ideathat among African cultures, the dead joins another world of life onearth in the form of ancestral spirits regarded to be more powerfulthan the living. This is remarkable about African culture and can berelated to the same beliefs held by some African-Americancommunities. It is incredible to read about a culture holding thenotion that once a person dies, rituals must be perfumed to connectwith the deceased. So interesting again is the viewpoint that thedead communicates with the living through dreams and vision, with theliving dead believed to be inseparable and capable of adverselyinfluencing the lives of people, hence the need to appease themthrough wonderful burial rituals. And they are passed through holesor windows rather than doors to prevent them from returning to hauntthe living! These are interesting death and burial cultures that wererealized through the study.

TheRole of the Topic in American Culture

Thestudy had a role in uncovering the fact that burial/ death ritualcultures are diverse and distinct to those in America. It eliminatesthe previous euro-American worldviews and epistemological prototypesthat denied the region of the opportunity to learn about diversecultures around the globe (Garces-Foley 134). In America, especiallyamong the African-Americans, death is considered to be transitory andnot final, and in which one would be joining the ancestral worldthey treat the process of funeral as a celebration rather thanmourning the loss of someone. Americans mostly focus on helping thedeceased in their afterlife, with some leaving foodstuffs and clothesaround the graveyard. Some would shave their head to honor the dead.Like the case of Africans, some Americans also believe that deadpeople’s souls pass into the spiritual world and become spiritualforces which can influence the lives of the living beings. Therefore,the study was decisive in understanding the origin of some death andburial practices in America, especially those witnessed among theAfrican-Americans as they two cultures compare.

Similaritiesand Differences between African Burial/Death Rituals and AmericanCultures

Inboth cultures, the funeral is considered a major event where peoplewould come together. In America, a car is hired to transport familyand friends to the deceased person’s area, and the late is placedin a casket dressed in his best clothes. After the burial, those whoattended the ceremony are offered food, which is similar to Africantraditions where a meal is prepared after the funeral (Garces-Foley136). Also, in both cultures, rituals and ceremonies are performed inhonor of the dead, who is handled in a specific and sacred way. Forinstance, in American culture, the body is buried with feet facingeast due to the belief that the person will rise during judgment day,and coins were traditionally placed in the hands of the deceased withthe notion that the late will present the rewards to the ancestralworld. Just like in Africa, death in America culture is considered tobe transitory rather than final, and funerals are called “homecoming”since it is believed that the departed will be joining an afterlifeworld, and may become a god (Jindra and Joël Noret 211).

However,there are some differences between the death and burial cultures inAfrica and America. First, in American culture, during burial,funeral customs are categorized into three i.e. visitation, funeraland burial services. During visitation, the family may choose todisplay the photographs of the late taken during his or her lifetimeon earth this protocol lacks among the varied African cultures.Second, the body is placed in a casket for viewing, which contrary toAfrican’s case where the body is left undisturbed in the deceasedbedroom, and no one is allowed to view photographs of the deceasedare turned to face the wall (Maddrell and James 59). Finally, unlikeAfrica, funerals in American also emphasize on silence, apart fromthe one person permitted to read the eulogy and the music that isplayed. By being silent, the mourners have time to think and remembertheir good moments with the deceased person. Disruption during thissilence time is considered rude and unethical. In African tradition,however, some official mourners are invited to the deceased home justto cry and create loud noises (Garces-Foley 137).


Fromthe above considerations, it is viable to summarize that death andburial rituals are diverse and compares or contrasts across theglobe. In Africa and American cultures, for instance, the dead arevalued as important ancestral spirits capable of communicating withthe living they are accorded ceremonial burial rituals. However,Africans practically mourn while in America, silence is key inrecalling memories spent with the late. Therefore, it is recommendedthat cultural studies, especially those related to death and burialrituals, be broadened to cover many countries of the world toappreciate the many worldviews based on region.


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Irish,Donald P., Kathleen, F. Lundquist, and Vivian, J. Nelsen.&nbspEthnicvariations in dying, death and grief: Diversity in universality.UK: Taylor &amp Francis, 2014. Print.

Jindra,Michael, and Joël Noret, eds.&nbspFuneralsin Africa: explorations of a social phenomenon.NY, U.S.: Berghahn Books, 2013. Print.

Maddrell,Avril, and James, D. Sidaway, eds.&nbspDeathscapes:Spaces for death, dying, mourning and remembrance.Farnham, U.S.: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012. Print.

Magesa,Laurenti.&nbspAfricanreligion: The moral traditions of abundant life.NY, U.S.: Orbis Books, 2014. Print.