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If you will remember that when we are talking and reading about rites of passage, we intentionally left out funeral rites because of the special attention we intend to attach to it. In this last unit, you will now study every issue related to death in African traditions and its implication to its religion.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. discuss the African concept of death 
  2. discuss the rites associated with funerals in African life 
  3. discuss the implications of the funeral rites 
  4. discuss the African concept of life after death 
  5. discuss the importance of ancestral cults among Africans. 


3.1 Death

Death is seen in Africa as the inevitable end of all human beings. It is also considered as the most disrupting phenomenon of all. Death to the Africans stands between the world of the living (human beings) and the world of the spirits or between the visible and the invisible world. The African concept of this world is that this world is like a voyage and that everyone will go home one day. Therefore death is that event that returns everyone back home. Hence, the idea is that no matter how long

one may stay put on earth, one will eventually return to where he comes from through the agency of death. However, though death is seen as the end of all human beings, Africans do not see death as the end of life. Death is seen as a transition from the present earthly life to another life in the land of the spirits. Death is described as a journey which humanity must take in order to reach the land beyond where they would be elevated to the position of an ancestor.
It is also believed that death does not severe human beings relationship with their family but on the contrary it extends the family relationship into infinity. This is the basis for the continual fellowship and communion between the living and the dead in African. They believe that both the living and the ancestors (the dead) have a role to play in fulfilling family obligations and ensuring the continual existence of the family.

It has to be noted that though death is not seen as the end of all things, it is still an unwelcome development among Africans. It is often seen as a wicked destroyer and a curse that frustrates human effort. It brings about physical separation of loved ones and also constitutes a great loss to the immediate family where death has occurred and also to the community at large. There are several myths in Africa that seem to explain the origin of death. The most acceptable is the one that sees death as the messenger of God himself It then confers on death the status of debt that all the living must pay one day no matter how long they live on earth.

Death can be classified into two categories among Africans. These are the good, also called natural death and the bad death. The death of young people, either as children or as youths or young adults is regarded as bad death. This is the basis for such not enjoying the privilege of full funeral rites. For example, when a child dies, the parents and the relatives would lament and dispose the corpse as quickly as possible. In fact, the parents in most cultures would not even want to know where such a child is buried. Also falling in the category of bad death are deaths that can be attributed to divinities of judgement and justice. For example, those who are killed by thunder and small-pox are regarded as having been given capital punishment from the divine. Hence, they are not mourned. They are buried with purificatory and expiatory rites to appease the divinities concerned. Other types of bad death include those who died of leprosy, accidents such as falling down from the palm tree, suicide, murder, drowning, burns and those who died with pregnancy or in labour. All those in this category are not given formal burials but are handed over to the priests for burial without delay.

Good death is the death that comes to human beings at a ripe old age. Consequently, the death of an old person in the African community is an occasion for much rejoicing and ritual ceremonies. Most good death actually falls into the category of natural death. This is death that comes as a result of old age. At times stories are told of old people who are ready to die but sent for all their children and give them final instructions before passing on finally.

It is important to say at this point that in most African communities, it is believed that when a person stopped breathing, the person is declared dead. The general belief is that the spirit or the soul of the person returns to God but the physical body is buried and it rots there. The soul on arrival before God will give an account of how the person has lived in this world and this would determine the person’s final home.

3.2 Funeral Rites

The African belief that death is a transition from one plane of existence to the other is seen in the funeral arrangements and burial. Funerals are generally taken to be a great occasion among Africans. It involves the whole community who gather to perform appropriate rites which to them strengthen the bond of unity between the living and the dead. It is believed that unless these rites are appropriately performed, the spirit of the dead would never be at rest nor join the ancestral spirits but would be hovering around the homestead and may actually begin to harm people. This belief encourages all those who are alive to see to the success of the funeral rites.

It has to be stated here too that funeral rites vary from one society to the other and also dependent on the circumstances surrounding the death of the person to be buried. Considerations are given to age, social position and status of the dead. In this section, we will focus on what seems to be the general and the burial of an old person.

In most cultures, the death of an old person is heralded with gun shots. As soon as such gun shots are heard people will trace the compound where the shots are heard and identify the person who has died. If the corpse is to be moved to another place for burial, then a man holding a live fowl goes in front and he will be plucking the feathers of the fowl until they reach their destination. The undertakers will eat the fowl on reaching their destination.
The hair of the deceased is clean shaven if the deceased is a male and beautifully plaited if the deceased is female. The corpse is then thoroughly washed with warm clean water and new sponge and soap. The belief is that before one joins the ancestors the person has to be clean. After the bath, the corpse is dressed in dignifying clothes brought by the relatives. It is then laid on a well decorated bed. After this, music, dancing and feasting begins. Women dance round the corpse singing funeral songs while the other people spend money on them as gifts.

The interment takes place either in the morning or in the evening and the grave is dug in one of the rooms in the house. This is done because it is believed that the deceased still forms part of the household and should not be separated from the people. Messages are sent to the ancestors through the deceased. People ask for personal benefits, like gifts for children, good husband or wife, good work and the victory over enemies. After the burial ceremony is concluded, a gun is fired to
indicate that the corpse has been buried.

It is believed that the deceased would be around the household for a number of days after the burial. This is because they believe that until certain other rites are performed the deceased has no place in the abode of the ancestors. The ceremonies will take place on the third, the seventh, the thirteenth, the seventeenth and the fortieth day. It is after the performance of these rites that the deceased takes its place among the ancestors.

3.3 The Hereafter

It is generally believed that the hereafter is another world or a distant place where life may resemble this life. For this reason, articles such as clothing, sponge, towel, food and in the case of the wealthy or the royal household gold trinkets and precious ornaments are buried alongside to help the dead on the way to the next world. It is the same belief that makes the Africans burry slaves and wives along with deceased rulers so that they will continue to assist them on the way to the eternal home.

3.4 Ancestral Cults

Belief in the continued existence and influence of the departed members of the family and the tribe at large is very strong in the African continent. It has to be noted that the ancestors are not seen just as past heroes but that they are still very present watching over the household and directly concerned in all the affairs of the family.

As it had been stated earlier, not every dead person qualifies to become an ancestor. This is because there is a standard set aside to determine who will qualify as an ancestor. One such criterion is adulthood which again is determined by marital status. Apart from being an adult, such an adult must have died a natural death. All forms of unnatural death, be it accident or disease may at times be attributed to the person’s hidden Ane. The only exemption to this law is the death of someone on the Jattle field in defense of the whole community. This in fact enhances one’s reputation. It is believed in Africa that since the ancestors are no longer visible in the physical sense, some elements of enhanced power are attributed to them. Death has given them more potentialities. The ancestors are the link between the people and the spiritual world. In other words, as the living-dead, they seem to be the best group of intermediaries between the divinities and God on the one hand and humanity on the other hand since they have full access to the channels of communicating with the Divine Being directly. Also, as intermediaries from above, they have delegated authority from God. They have the mandate to reward right conduct and punish the individual for crimes against the society.

With their delegated power and authority the ancestors naturally command fear and respect from the people. Because of this fact, great care is taken to ensure that the ancestors get befitting burial. All rites and ceremonies must be meticulously performed to avoid displeasing them. One notable aspect of the cult which has attracted much comment is the attention paid to them as well as attitude towards them. Some people regard the offerings made to the ancestors as worship. To some extent this claim is justified because there are elements in the relationship and attitude of the living towards the ancestors that look like actual worship. For example, at the individual level there are prayers that accompany libation and the offerings made to the ancestors. In such prayers, people ask for fertility, food, life in abundance, victory in time of war and peace. It is this that the critics of African Traditional Religion have taken to be worship.

It has to be noted however that the Africans do not place the ancestors on the same footing with the divine. They do not worship them but venerate them. Though, there is the danger of veneration degenerating into worship without the worshippers knowing. This however is also true of all other world religions.


You have learnt in this unit that Africans do not see death as the end of all things even though death is seen as the inevitable end of all human beings. It is the belief that the dead are not permanently severed from relating with the living that has led to the institution of the ancestral cult. Those that are inducted into the cult of the ancestors are those who have lived up to old age and have died peacefully or naturally. Those who died as a result of sickness or at a young age are seen as cursed and so are not fit to be ancestors.


The following are the major points you have learnt in this unit:

  1. Death in Africa is seen as the inevitable end of all humanity 
  2. Death however, is not seen as then of existence but leads to existence in the spiritual world. 
  3. This belief led to the establishment of the cult of the ancestors. 
  4. Full funeral rites including induction to the cult of the ancestors are accorded those who lived to old age and died peacefully or naturally 
  5. Those who died as a result of sickness or at a young age are seen as cursed and so are not fit to be ancestors. 


Discuss the concept of life after death among Africans and its effect on the funeral rites.


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