It is impossible to generalize concepts in African religions because they are ethno-centric, or based on place and group of people, but I’ve done my best to communicate a little cultural information. In most African religions, death is not seen as an end to life, but a change in circumstances. A deceased person has simply lost most of their life force, but that does not end their personality or their ability to communicate with others. This does not negate the need for funerals, however. The goal of life is to become an ancestor after death, so the funeral proceedings and traditions are more important than ever if that goal is to be achieved. Many of the funeral traditions in Africa, however, have more to do with the living than with the dead. Much of the reasoning behind the rituals included below is the protect the living from the power the dead have over them.
Mourning and Celebration
Many of the African traditions ushering out the dead include a celebratory aspect to remind those left behind of the richness of life. Some of these rituals include dancing, which provides the deceased with “light feet” as they journey to the other world. “Mourning dances are often preformed. The Kenga people of central Sudan perform mourning dances called “Dodi” or “Mutu” on a burial day. The Yoruba of Nigeria have a dance wearing a likeness of the deceased. The Dogon of Mali perform masked dances as kind of a confrontation with death. For the Lugbara people of Uganda and the Angas of northern Nigeria dance is an important part of death rites too.” (For more information, click here.)
You may have heard of this fascinating tradition coming out of Ghana by the Ga-Adangbe people. They believe that death is the threshold to an afterlife, so it is respectful and admirable to bury your loved one in a coffin that represents their past life, as to “send them in style” to the next life. Coffins are made to look like anything that is the essence of the deceased: fish, pencils, beer bottles, sports cars, etc. Coffin carpenters are very accomplished and skilled men who make it their life to create eccentric and exquisite coffins to accompany those who have passed on. To learn more about the Ga people, click here.
The strict mourning traditions come mostly from Southern Africa. For a least a week, the mourning family stays home with no outside contact. They wear black clothes and many choose to shave their hair. Some believe that the essence of life is held in the hair, so shaving it represents the mourning of death, and its regrowth is the reemergence of life. Everything that once belonged to the deceased is considered unclean during this period of mourning, and anything they touched must be cleansed. After the week is over, the mourners themselves go through a cleansing ritual to shed the darkness or “bad luck” brought to them by the death. Though a week is typical for family members, it is not unusual for a wife to remain in mourning for a year.
For more African funeral traditions, click here.