Funerals and Burial Ceremonies

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Funerals and Burial Ceremonies


Rituals for Young People. In Africa, as in other cultures, a death in the family was probably the most painful experience for the members of the clan. The death of an elder called for an elaborate celebration, which in some instances—as in the Yoruba culture—might last for several months. When a younger family member died, however, the cause of death was investigated. If the medicine men determined that the person did not die of natural causes, the village had to embark on elaborate rituals to ascertain who was responsible for the untimely death. The dead body was left for several days while the village performed rites to ensure that the dead person would come back to avenge his death. Then the body was buried outside the family land with an object such as an ax or a knife attached to the corpse. People believed that the dead person would arise on the seventh day after his burial and be ready to take on whoever caused his untimely death. People who committed suicide were not allowed to be buried near the village. Their corpses were often transported at night into the deep forests, where it was believed they would assume a new life as a ghost or evil spirit. The bodies of suicides were treated with extreme caution. Only qualified medicine men were assigned to perform the burial rites while women, younger men, and children were prohibited from viewing the dead body.

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Funerals for the Elderly. The death of a person considered old was regarded as a good thing. When elders passed away, they were not considered dead in the traditional sense; that is, people believed that these elders had gone to the world of ancestors or the spirits, from which the ancestors were supposed to protect members of the family who were still living. The corpses of elderly chief’s or high priests were displayed publicly for days in anticipation of their return as spirits. After medicine men reported their arrival to the family, funeral rites began in earnest. The bodies were generally buried in front of the family compound or inside the house, where their spirits took up residence with the rest of the family. In ancient Ghana and in the Yoruba kingdom, when an oba (king) died, he was buried with servants to help their master on his journey. Effigies of deceased obas were carved from wood and erected outside the palace as reminders of their continued existence, and they ultimately became shrines where the family worshiped yearly during important ceremonies. Believing that the ancestors would bring success, people carried their effigies into battle. The Vai ethnic group of Senegambia and the Idoo of the western Ivory Coast also had elaborate ceremonies in preparation for burying an elder. In some instances, a burial could not be performed until war had been declared on adjoining villages and captives had been brought into the compound of the deceased. In recognition of the life of the deceased and his or her social status, some of the captives might be sacrificed in the belief that they would accompany the dead one to the world of the spirits.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1989).

George Ellis, Negro Culture of West Africa (New York: Neale, 1914).

Robert H Nassau, “Fetishism in West Africa,” West African Mail, 12 August 1904.

F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan, 1973).

W. N. Stephens, The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).