Dying, death and burial – the ‘challenging’ functions of end-of-life rituals on the African continent
Isabel Bredenbröker Goethe Universität Frankfurt / UCL London
Johanna Sarre, Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies
As crucial rites de passage, funerals are considered both conservative and innovative. They are as much about the dead as they are for the living. How can African funerary practices be read as challenging or reifying hegemonic discourses on good life and death? Who are the actors and what are the challenges in the context of dying, death and burial?
Considered a crucial life-cycle event and a rite of passage, funerals have not only served as tools for the conservation of existing power structures but also as arenas in which social change and values are negotiated. Funerals are as much about the dead as they negotiate issues of crucial importance to the living. Concepts of tradition and inventing neo-traditions have therefore been found to play a crucial role in relation to African funerary practices and their potential to articulate stability or change. Attempts at challenging social organization and values are not unidirectional, but may be directed at a variety of aims, representing a multitude of interests and agendas. Ways of handling dying, death, and burial can be read, for example, as contesting local or particular versus national political interests. They may serve to direct wealth and value towards gift economies rather than economic exchange. They may be used for making claims to citizenship, belonging and land. They may also structure the articulation of labour and loyalty that is expressed through payments, contributions and moral evaluations in the funerary cycle.
People on the continent continue to be challenged in handling dying, death and burial under circumstances of profound social change and external influences, such as missionary activity, epidemics (AIDS/Ebola) as well as transnational or rural-urban mobility. Furthermore, from a cultural comparative perspective, African approaches towards death, dying and funerary practices have always challenged the Western concept of how a good death is produced.
How can African funerary practices be read as challenging or reifying hegemonic discourses on good life and death? Who are the actors and what are the challenges in the context of dying, death and burial? The panel invites contributions that discuss the challenging functions of contemporary and historical funerary practices for local communities on the African continent and their connections to global networks of kin, trade, religion, consumption, imagery etc.