Traditional African Funeral

It is the tradition of Xhosa people, to return the dead to their homelands for burial. I was privileged to accompany a bereaved family on one such journey.

As we drove out of the city Cape Town, South Africa a prayer was said for the deceased and for a safe journey. It took 16 hours to reach our destination where the family of the deceased lived - the trip was punctuated by beautiful singing from the men and women on board. We arrived to be greeted by panoramic vistas in a very rural part of South Africa, Hershel (bordering Lesotho) in the Transkei.

Powerful singing resounded as the coffin was carried to the house. As we went inside, the singing turned into a wailing lament. The family home was very small, containing only one room, but somehow the large crowd of mourners were accommodated inside. The coffin was opened to allow for final farewells as the mourners circumambulated the body. When this part of the proceedings had finished, the coffin was closed and moved against the wall to make place in the cramped confines of the room.

It is tradition for two candles to be lit and placed at either end of the coffin, and for the father of the deceased to sit at the head of the coffin and the mother and wife to sit at the foot of the coffin where they remain all night until the burial the following day. This allows time for healing. In this case, the father of the deceased had himself passed away so there was nobody to sit at the head of the coffin. As the night went on many well-wishers walked from miles around to offer their condolences, while members of the Zion church sang and prayed. The women of the family rose at dawn to make preparations for the funeral feast. The men of the family set about slaughtering sheep and chopping wood for the cooking fires. There was a real sense of coming together, of community, something I was very glad to be a part of.

The women of the family rose at dawn to make preparations for the funeral feast. I was amazed at how much happiness and good nature was apparent amongst the family at a time associated in our own culture with debilitating sadness. The men of the family set about slaughtering sheep and chopping wood for the cooking fires. There was a real sense of coming together, of community, something I was very glad to be a part of. The burial ceremony began at 9am, once the people from the neighbouring villages had gathered. Many friends of the deceased took turns to speak kind words about him and his life, with the speeches being interspersed by singing, drumming and dancing. The coffin was taken to the cemetery by a pickup truck while the congregation followed behind singing in unison. After the priest had performed the final rites and rituals, every person present took a turn to cover the grave with soil, men with a spade and the women with a handful of soil. Afterwards a stone was placed on the graves of other family members who had been buried in the same cemetery. Members of the funeral procession then returned to the home of the deceased and had a feast to celebrate.

The burial ceremony began at 9am, once the people from the neighbouring villages had gathered. Many friends of the deceased took turns to speak kind words about him and his life, with the speeches being interspersed by singing, drumming and dancing. The coffin was carried to the cemetery while the congregation followed behind singing in unison. After the priest had performed the final rites and rituals, every person present took a turn to cover the grave with soil, men with a spade and the women with a handful of soil. Afterwards a stone was placed on the graves of other family members who had been buried in the same cemetery. Members of the funeral procession then returned to the home of the deceased and had a feast to celebrate.

Funeral rites are as old as the human culture itself. Being part of this ceremony has given me a great understanding of how important it is to continue the tradition and to honour the life of the deceased.

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Life in Death photo essay Life in Death photo essay Life in Death photo essay Life in Death photo essay
Life in Death photo essay Life in Death photo essay Life in Death photo essay Life in Death photo essay
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