The History Of African Tribal Funerals

Tribal Hut with drum outside of entrance

Throughout the world, there is so much variety in funeral and burial practices. Africa is one region with a very unique history and culture surrounding death and mourning. Most practices are influenced by Africans' traditional belief in the afterlife, and Christianity has also played a key role in shaping the practices over the years. Here's a closer look at African tribal funeral traditions.

Home Rituals

The burial process in most African tribes often begins several days before the funeral itself. Family members gather to delegate funeral-related tasks and to prepare the home for the state of mourning. The deceased family member's bed is typically removed from the home, and the windows are covered. It is though that by covering the windows, they prevent the dead from seeing their own reflection. This is all done before the body is removed from the home.

Transporting the Body

Africans feel that the spirit of a person is still present and aware until the body is properly buried. Much of their ritual has the goal of ensuring the spirit is allowed to move on, and particular attention is paid to how the body is transported from the home to the burial site. Some tribes remove the body from the home through a hole in the wall; they then patch the hole. This is done to prevent the spirit from re-entering and haunting the home. Other tribes take a zig-zag path from the home to the burial site for the same reason.

Burying the Body

Typically, what westerners think of as a funeral is held at the burial site in Africa. The body is wrapped in clothing or a special linen shroud, and it is buried along with items like food, spears, and shields that are though to help the spirit as it travels to its new home in the afterlife. Family and community members are present during the burial, but it is a silent affair. Children don't typically attend; unmarried people are also banned in some tribes.

Following the burial, African families often observe a period of mourning. During this time, they keep their voices low, avoid socializing outside the home, and wear black clothing.

African tribal traditions are still followed in many areas, and African families living abroad sometimes wish to integrate aspects of this culture into their burial practices. These are rituals that date back thousands of years and have great meaning.