Death, Mourning, and Ancestors

People who die are not buried in a field, they are buried in the heart,” goes a saying of the central African nation of RWANDA. Death of course is more than the physical fact of a life’s end. It also brings emotional and social change to families and communities. Africans mark those changes with rituals that draw on traditional beliefs and customs, as well as on Muslim and Christian practices. These funerary customs provide ways for people to dispose of their dead, express their grief, and honor the memory of those who have died. For Muslims in North Africa and other regions in Africa, Islamic writings and beliefs govern burial customs and ideas about the afterlife. In sub-Saharan Africa, traditions about death and mourning vary a great deal. Across much of that region, death is seen as the act of becoming an ancestor, and funerary practices are related to the important role ancestors play in the lives of those they left behind.

DEATH AND BURIAL

In all cultures, burial customs are a way of separating the dead person from the living. They may also fulfill religious requirements or expectations. In addition, funerals and obituaries generally serve social functions, giving families and communities a public opportunity to display their social position and relationships.

Funerary Practices in Sub-Saharan Africa

Burial customs in sub-Saharan Africa reflect differences in the cultures and histories of various communities. Both European colonial influence and modernization have played a role in shaping these practices.

The Lugbara people of northwestern UGANDA live in densely populated settlements, where death occurs daily and is witnessed—or at least known of—by many. Although death is familiar, the Lugbara give it great importance. Their funeral rituals are longer and more elaborate than ceremonies for birth, coming of age, or marriage. Large numbers of people attend funerals, not just the relatives of the deceased.

In contrast, the Mbeere people of KENYA have traditionally lived in small, roving, widely separated groups. They left their dead in the wild with little ceremony. In the 1930s the British, who controlled Kenya, required burial of the dead, and 30 years later they introduced individual land ownership. Responding to these changes, the Mbeere developed elaborate funeral ceremonies that became indications of property ownership as well as tributes to Mbeere leaders and to the strength of their followers.

Deaths and funerals often involve issues of identity in Africa, where many people follow more than one religious tradition and have ties to more than one ethnic group. In one such case, the death of a wealthy man in GHANA sparked a rivalry between two towns to which the deceased belonged by kinship, marriage, and political and economic ties. The rivalry was complicated by the dead man’s links with both the Presbyterian church and the non-Christian deity of his father. When the Presbyterians buried him and claimed him as one of their own, the question of the dead man’s hometown and primary kin was decided in favor of the town with the Presbyterian connection. Yet funeral arrangements can also serve to acknowledge more than one identity. Some Africans favor funeral services led by several clergy together.

The dead in sub-Saharan Africa are usually buried, typically after being washed and sometimes shaved. Those able to preserve the body of the deceased may do so for several days to allow people to gather for the funeral. The form of the funeral may depend on the dead person’s age, gender, ethnic group, class, or religion. Status within the community and type of death also affect the funeral. Sudden and untimely deaths are considered “bad,” and someone whose life ends in such fashion may receive no funeral at all. Long life, community service, and wealth, however, are celebrated with large and elaborate funerals. In all cases, death is associated with pollution, and at the end of the funeral guests are expected to cleanse themselves. Young children and pregnant women, thought to be especially likely to be tainted by death, are often forbidden to attend funerals.

In NIGERIA, Ghana, BENIN, BOTSWANA, and elsewhere, details about the deceased and funerals usually appear in obituaries. Wealthy people place these death notices in newspapers and on radio and television to draw attention to the coming funerals. Poor folk—and Muslims, who must bury their dead quickly—rely mainly on radio announcements. Obituaries, as well as memorial notices that relatives place in the media months or years after a death, give survivors a chance to celebrate their position in society by dwelling on the career and achievements of the deceased. Some groups create other kinds of memorials to the dead, such as the carved wooden posts made by the Mahafaly of MADAGASCAR and the Giryama of Kenya.

Some traditional African ideas about the soul’s life after death focus on journeys or judgments. The Dogon of MALI and the YORUBA of Nigeria, among others, believe that the dead must undertake a long and difficult trip to distant spirit lands. Sometimes the highest deity makes a final judgment about the character of the deceased. While the spirit lands and afterlife are hidden from the living, the dead, in their role as ancestors, remain very much a part of living communities.

Islamic Traditions

Muslims never cremate, or burn, their dead. They bury them. Tradition calls for the burial to take place very soon after death. Whenever possible, someone who dies during the day is buried before sunset; a person who dies at night is buried in the morning. After being washed, the body is wrapped in a white cloth and buried with its face turned toward Mecca, the Islamic holy city in Saudi Arabia. Muslim funeral and mourning customs vary. Among the BERBERS of MOROCCO, only men attend funerals, and local schoolmasters or prayer leaders read from the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. In many Berber groups, relatives of the deceased hold a feast for those who attended the funeral some days or weeks later.

Islamic beliefs about the fate of the soul after death are based on the Qur’an and the Kitab al-run (Book of the Soul). According to these texts, the Angel of Death sits at the head of a dying person and directs the soul toward either the anger or the mercy of God, depending on whether the person has lived a wicked or a good life. Two other angels record the deeds of the deceased. Souls judged to be good, as well as the souls of all Muslims who die in a jihad, or holy war, go to a garden paradise. Wicked souls go to a hell of eternal punishment.

THE ROLE OF THE ANCESTORS

Explorers and scholars of the 1800s described African beliefs and customs about the dead as ancestor worship. More recent study has shown that the relationship between the living and their ancestors varies among African peoples but is always complex. Some scholars describe such relationships as respect rather than worship. This view is rooted in the idea that families and communities are shaped by those who have gone before. The dead continue to have meaning and authority, as long as the living remember and honor them. In turn, the living are judged by how well and faithfully they perform their duties to their ancestors.

Ancestors in Everyday Life

The Lugbara of central Africa believe that their elaborate and very public funerals are an essential part of a transformation that begins with death: the transformation of the deceased into a spirit whose name will be remembered by descendants. Rituals for the dead may extend over a period of years. The Lugbara plant fig trees at the graves of important elders and may put small stone slabs together to form “houses” honoring the dead. The trees and stones are shrines where people may consult their ancestors. In time, the most senior ancestors lose their ties to a specific location and are considered part of the creator deity.

Shrines, family stories, and genealogies make ancestors a familiar presence in everyday life throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. The living interact with the dead in various places and ways. Inherited property, called “the tears of the dead” in ZIMBABWE, represents a link with ancestors. The Nzima people of Ghana regard long-term projects such as orchards and plantations as the work of the dead continuing across generations. Children are named for ancestors, and sometimes the spirits of ancestors are thought to be reborn in the young.

African Muslims honor their ancestors with rituals. Some people perform a ceremony each year that is believed to open the passage between the living and the dead. In exchange for the prayers of the living, the dead return blessings.

Not every dead person is honored as an ancestor—someone whose identity contributes to the social position of descendants. There is ranking among the dead just as among the living. Unmarried or childless individuals, the very poor, orphans, former slaves, criminals, those who commit suicide, and people who died “bad” deaths or from certain “bad” diseases such as leprosy are unlikely to be remembered as ancestors. Someone who has not buried a parent “well” will be regarded as foolish or useless and will probably be forgotten also.

Ancestors and beliefs about them appear in many expressions of African cultures. Some West African stories, for example, feature a type of wayward or unruly spirit who keeps appearing as a newborn child only to die back again into the spirit world. Such beliefs are not limited to literature. Nigerian author Chinua ACHEBE began writing about this spirit after hearing a 16-year-old girl speak of her experiences. He described the pain and bewilderment she felt at being treated as a living person who could disappear into the spirit world at any moment.

Ancestors and Politics

At various times and places in African history, death and ancestry have become political tools. One of the most powerful ways to take away a group’s place in society—short of enslavement—is to limit the ability of its members to carry out funeral and mourning rituals. African governments and societies have done this by enforcing different codes of burial for different classes of people. In some societies, “proper” burials may be priced so high that poor people cannot afford them. Stripped of these important ties to the rest of the community and to other generations, the poor are seen as having neither past nor future. Africans have responded to this situation by forming burial societies, which date from the time when they began moving into cities in the early 1900s. Members of these societies pool their resources and contributions to provide each other with “proper” burials that meet the standards of their cultures.

Some African political movements in the 1800s and 1900s called upon ancestral figures. They were said to have inspired many prophets or leaders of uprisings or crusades against colonial rule. In the 1850s, for example, a young XHOSA woman named NONGQAWUSE caused some commotion in SOUTH AFRICA. Claiming to speak for the ancestors of her people, she ordered the Xhosa to sacrifice all their cattle as a way to end their quarrels and become strong again. They followed her advice and became very poor.

Burial has also become a political issue in struggles over the corpses of well-known people. One such struggle took place in Uganda in the 1970s. Seeking to win the favor of the country’s Ganda people, General Idi AMIN DADA brought the corpse of their former ruler back from Great Britain, where he had died. Amin then staged a public viewing of the body and a large state funeral. However, when the ruler’s heir tried to strengthen his own claim to office by burying the body in the royal tomb of the Ganda, Amin Dada dismissed the action as a meaningless ritual. Of course, the action was not meaningless. It was an illustration of the significance that death, mourning, and ancestry hold for many Africans. (See also Ethnic Groups and Identity, Islam in Africa, Kinship, Religion and Ritual, Spirit Possession.)