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Death Rituals in Africa

By Charlotte Gerber
There are many different death rituals in Africa that are observed. There is one commonality though; most people believe that only a correct burial will bring a dead person peace.

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A Correct Funeral

Body Removal
A correct funeral in Africa begins with the removal of the body from the home. Previous to a person dying, a hole is made in the side of the home. When it is time to remove the body from the home, it is taken out of the house through the hole instead of a door, feet first. This is to keep the spirit from finding an easy way back into the home. As the body is being transported to the place of burial, thorns and sticks are placed along the way and a zigzag pattern is used to confuse the spirit. These precautions are taken so that the spirit does not bother the living.Depending upon religious beliefs, some people make it easier for their loved ones to find their way back home. They may even be buried under or next to the home.

Request for the Departed
Family members request the departed do not bring trouble to them after they have died, as well as asking that they strengthen life on Earth. It is believed that the living, as well as the dead, have a life force. This life force doesn’t diminish once a person has passed into the next world.

Home Bringing Rite
It is common to sacrifice animals as part of the death ritual in Africa. An ox is the popular choice, as it is believed this animal will accompany the deceased person to the land of their ancestors. Oxen also serve another purpose; the beasts provide food for the mourners. Other families may choose to sacrifice an animal months or even several years after a person has died. It is believed that a person has never truly died until there is no one left among the living to remember them.

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Death Rituals in Africa for the Home
Preparing a home after the death of a loved one is an important funeral rite. The windows are smeared with ashes, pictures are turned to face the wall and any reflective object such as a television or mirror is covered. In the deceased person’s bedroom, the bed is removed and the women of the family sit on the floor upon a mattress or cushion. For the next week or two, people in the community visit these women to offer their respect and condolences.

In Christian homes, the day before a funeral the dead person is brought home and placed in their bedroom. Family members then hold a vigil until the next morning. The funeral is often conducted before sunrise. The reason for this is that witches and sorcerers are asleep at this time and not likely to take over the corpse of their loved one.

Ritual Animal Sacrifice
An animal may be killed right before the funeral as a ritual bloodletting. It is believed that blood needs to be shed to prevent further misfortune in the family. The hide of the animal may also be used to cover the person or their casket at the funeral.

Burial Rite
Family members, with the exception of children and unmarried individuals, are expected to attend the burial. The family stands on one side of the gravesite and everyone else on the other side. The family is not allowed to speak during the burial. Personal items are buried with the person to help them in their journey to their ancestors.


After the burial, mourners may return to the family’s home. At the gate of the home they are expected to wipe the graveyard dust from their feet and some mourners may place pieces of the aloe plant in water to remove bad luck. Christians may also sprinkle the mourners with holy water to purify them.

Some families follow a strict mourning ritual. Men may shave all of their hair from their head and face, symbolizing death and new life. Family members may wear black clothing or black cloths on their backs for weeks or even as long as a year. Widows are expected to mourn for a year and children who have suffered the loss of a parent are expected to mourn for three months.

A Dead Person’s Possessions

It is believed that anyone who has come into contact with a corpse is unclean. In addition, anything the dead person has touched is also unclean. This includes tables, chairs, utensils, blankets and clothing. All of these items must be washed and not used until the mourning period is over. A dead person’s clothing may either be tied up with string for one year then distributed to family members or they may be burned.

The death rituals in Africa are changing as Christianity and Islam are being introduced. Many elements of the Christian faith can be seen in the evolution of the rituals. Ritual slaying of animals and talking with the dead are being seen less frequently in modern times. Many communities are hanging onto their traditions as a way to preserve their culture. Churches are seen as a player, not as an overseer, in the funeral rite.


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