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.
The paper discusses how local perceptions and uses of materials and things in a Ghanaian Ewe town are vital in creating a body politic within which the dead can be owned by the living community members and integrated into the wider body social.
Traditionally distinguishing between good and bad deaths, which require different sequences of activities by the living, the community controls the movement and containment of the dead, the transformation of their bodies and their immaterial spiritual components. This is supported by a choice of synthetic, durable and commodified materials such as plastic or cement as well as other things that are marked as new and imported. These, in the local perception, help to contain and arrest the dead whilst stripping them of their personal relations to the living. As such, the materiality of graves, gifts for the dead and obituary banners tells the story of successful containment of a deceased – but also of the financial capacity of family members to pay for this. Local evaluations and uses of durable and de-personalised materials help to generate a space and time for the dead, which can ultimately be manipulated by the living as social time.
Additionally, there are impediments on the way of towards a successful burial. Both the moral evaluation of a deceased as well as their direct nuclear family members, most of all their children, depend on their perception as active community members in the eyes of kin, local elders and chiefs. The process of negotiating possibly negative social credit marks a tool of local traditional governance authorities and traditional social structures to draw absent community members back into town and gain something for their traditional institution’s positions in the process.
Containment may be more difficult, with spirits potentially evading the control of the living, if they have left life in a bad way, such as by accident or suicide. In these cases, different sequences are available which attempt to contain the more ephemeral, immaterial parts of a person that have, as a result of their cause of death, split from the body and are now in limbo between the spatio-temporal locations of the dead and the world of the living. Strategies to contain these dead aim at preserving existing social systems of governance, exchange and moral evaluations, whilst also potentially serving to challenge these same systems.
The paper will describe the different sequences and interrelations between material evaluations, social evaluations, exchange and political structures around death in the town community. It will highlight how actors representing the state versus actors representing community and local governance employ their control over movement and containment of the dead to increase their influence and position.
In the Kenyan context, how and even more so where to bury a deceased person is sometimes subject to fierce debates, as the famous study of the S.M Otieno case has shown (Cohen & Odhiambo 1992). In death, a person’s multiple relations, attachments and belongings have to be negotiated and the ambiguities that persisted through people’s lives have to be disambiguated to decide how and where to bury the body.
The proposed paper draws on empirical material from fieldwork among the Nubian inhabitants of Kibera, allegedly Kenya’s biggest slum, and their negotiations surrounding death and burial. I propose to enquire how the topos of the ‘rural homeland’, which is of tantamount importance in Kenyan discourses of belonging both for the living and the dead, plays out in practices surrounding Nubian burials and the Kibra (Nubian) Muslim Cemetery. In the envisaged paper, I argue that by laying their dead to rest there, the Nubian inhabitants of Kibera both challenge and reaffirm the powerful and exclusionary discourse of the ‘rural homeland’. These practices, I intend to show, are at the heart of Kenyan Nubians’ struggle to be recognized as belonging to and having land and citizen rights in relation to the Kenyan nation state.
Death could be explained as the end of life of a person but in the Ghanaian context, death does not signify the end of life of a person but marks the beginning of a new life. It is for this reason that proper burial rites have to be performed for the dead. This is to enable them to be able to transition into the spiritual world. Funerals are not just organized anyhow and by anyone. There are specified roles assigned to be performed by individuals within the specific families of the deceased. During funeral ceremonies, there are roles for women, men and for the children of the deceased. This paper seeks to explore the impact of gendered roles during death ceremonies and its implications for the emergence of gender equality in Ghana.
Keywords: Funeral rites, equality, gender, family, deceased
Dying, burials, and funeral rites are a focus points of rites-de-passage in society. In principle, when the elderly fade away, the formerly youngers become elderly themselves, and generations shift.
In fact, however, a current anthropological debate describes younger generations in (West) Africa often as struggling for economic freedom, status and autonomy. Instead of becoming self-reliant, younger adults remain dependent on their elder relatives because of difficulties to enter the job marked. But when an older person dies, the chair of the person providing service and goods for the younger people remains empty. The person who died as well as those who surrounded him/her change their social and economic status: Having been a care provider, the deceased becomes a care receiver (at least by expecting care services and funeral of a dead human body) whereas the living descendants have to provide money and care for the deceased. This change has impacts.
In this paper, I present the case of my locally well-known guest father, a locally well-known and influential elder from northern Togo, whom I have known since 2006 and who died in 2018. In 2019, he was honored by an extensive funeral rite, attended by several hundreds of guests. In the role of a foster daughter, I participated and helped in arranging the ceremony together with the deceased’s sons and daughter. Drawing on intense and active participant observation, I will show the process of my sibling group becoming adult. Through daily decision-making processes, the group of grown-up children framed and organized the timing of rituals for the wellbeing of the deceased and the remaining people (e.g. combining fetish rituals and contradicting Christian services; valuing the gifts of the cattle of the sons and the daughters – including myself).
I argue, that the required decision-making around the end of life of elderly persons is a crucial point for achieving the social status of adulthood for the subsequent generation. Not achieving or even refusing the challenge of adulthood – through sorcery, alcoholism or even dead of the offspring – is another option in this process. The intergenerational challenge is here firstly about timing. Achieving adulthood means to conduct a ‘good life’ with respect to the individual life-course. The second challenge relates to how economic difficulties threaten efforts to attain social maturity after the death of a father. Both challenges are interconnected, can fail and are constitutive of personhood of socially adults.
This study focuses on history, memory and social construction of class boundaries in Africa by examining how and why in death, cemeteries correspond to and represent the miniature, extension or continuation of a real-life experience of social stratification and boundaries. The project is based in part on how testimonies at the cemetery constitute objects of analysis of social history, and on examining broad methodological questions of writing social history in Africa. This study draws empirical data from the physical structure of burial space in Ibadan (the largest city in West Africa), tombstone inscriptions, obituary adverts in newspapers and African oral literature. The central argument of this study follows Michel Foucault’s thesis of “heterotopia” which views a cemetery as a heterotopic site that connects with all other sites of the city, state or village (Foucault: 1967). Unlike previous studies that view cemeteries as sites of disposing human corpse, cultural institution or an emotional space, I interpret a cemetery as a miniature as well as an extension of other spaces within urban space where all cultures and social relations are “simultaneously represented and contested” (Foucault: 1967) and social hegemonic structure of real societies are perpetuated. I argue that Cemetery, therefore, is not a mere necroscape, but a mirror that reflects complex relations of other places. These complex social relations are reflected through a spatial or physical arrangement of burial sites, material forms, art, styles, and size of grave markers. I also argue that the cemetery is also characteristically heterochronic. It is an immobile space that perpetually accumulates time, different epochs, cultures, styles, and tastes. Thus, cemeteries depict traditions, changes, and continuities of society.
The practices of secrecy in some burials in Sierra Leone have caused fatal misunderstandings during the recent Ebola crises. Traditional burials organized by secret societies (Poro and Bundu) were accused for allowing dangerous intimacy with the corpses during their rituals, so that Ebola would have spread mainly via funeral visitors. Letting aside the question of medical truth here, it appears that these allegations themselves have a deep history: When Sierra Leone was colonized the British Colonial Government considered the local secret societies a major opponent to conquest, law and order. Moreover, the police and government interpreted secret burials as crimes and charged the Poro and Bundu authorities with kidnapping, ritual murder and even cannibalism. To find evidence for these theories, many corpses were exhumed and witnesses of the burials questioned by the police. Throughout this investigation, various basal concepts of a ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ death competed.
This paper will elaborate on this criminalization of secret burials in Sierra Leone and investigate why secrecy was necessary only with regard to some deaths. Why was a safe transition from life to death only considered possible by silencing death for a certain period of time? How did the relatives of a deceased react to their exclusion from the funeral and to the taboo to care for their dead? And what was the role of missionaries and Christian Africans in this discourse? In addressing these questions, the proposed presentation will discuss African funeral rites located somewhere between the conflicting poles of publicity and secrecy of death.
The history of the first Christian missionaries in Rwanda offers a rare opportunity to study funerary practices and debates in particular, as a gateway to a better understanding of cultural exchange in general. On the one hand, the records and publications of the first missionary societies comprise many elaborations on discussions concerning dying and burial. On the other hand, the specific constellation of actors of the missionary stations daily life enables a comparison of multiple Western and African outlooks. Through these different perspectives, the complex entanglement of cultural values and underlying hegemonic discourses present when Christianity was introduced in Rwanda reveal themselves.
Historical research into the beginnings of Christian missionary history in Rwanda has produced a rich literature about the political and economic ties of the Christian missionaries with the Rwandan royal court and the different colonial governments. Yet, typically, the cultural aspects of the presence and activities of those missionaries remained unnoted (i.e., in the work of Ian Linden, Alison des Forges and Paul Rutayisire).
In contrast, cultural aspects are at the heart of this paper, which focuses specifically on transculturations. It relies on the methodology proposed by Rebekka Habermas and Richard Hölzl which recognizes missionaries as important but not the only actors in cultural exchange, thereby better acknowledging the agency of African actors. By utilising the concept of transculturation and focussing on debates on funerary practices whilst consulting the extensive collection of historical materials from archives of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa (in Rome) and of the United Evangelical Mission (in Wuppertal), this study reconsiders missionary history in Rwanda through the lens of cultural exchanges.
More specifically, this paper shows how the contestation of funerary practices differed by region, that Rwandan mortuary customs were not simply replaced by Western ones, that the funerary habits of the Christian missionaries were affected by the practices they witnessed in Rwanda and that the African intermediaries of the missionary societies had their own particular input in the debates.
This study is part of a PHD project funded by the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation
 Ian Linden, Church and Revolution in Rwanda. (New York: Manchester University Press, 1977).
 Alison des Forges, Defeat is the Only Bad News: Rwanda under Musinga, 1896-1931. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).
 Paul Rutayisire. La christianisation du Rwanda 1900 – 1945. Méthode missionaire et politique selon Mgr Léon Classe. (Fribourg , Éditions universitaires, 1987).
 Rebekka Habermas & Richard Hölzl, Mission Global. Eine Verflechtungsgeschichte seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. (Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2014).
The continuing loss of lives in the Northeast as a result of Boko Haram's attacks is creating a socio- cultural shift about death in the region. This is due to the growing numbers of Islamic preachers discourses on 'dying and death'. Against this background, this paper examines the influence of Islamic preachings in Nigeria's Northeast and how such is deconstructing the 'traditional' notion of death. It argues that, 'dying' and 'death' is gradually becoming a normal passage amongst inhabitants in the mainstream states (Borno, Adamawa and Yobe) facing he challenges of armed conflict by Boko Haram. Therefore, against the popular notion of life preservation and death avoidance, citizens and residents in the region do not entertain such fears of dying and 'special' rites about death in the region as it was prior to the emergence of conflict by Boko Haram due to the growing madrassas and Ulama's preachers whom are constructing a religious inclined socio-psychological perspective of 'providential death'; hence, the regularization of burial and death in the region. The study therefore seeks to find answers to why death and passage rites are changing; who and what are the focal actors shaping this socio- cultural dynamics; what are the political agency of these actors and its implications for the region; what are the myths and facts associated with the concept of dying and death in the context of Islamic preachings in the region and how have these provided resilience against Boko Haram's attacks on soft target in the face of protracted conflict against the people of the affected states.
The study relies on primary and secondary data for the study. For the primary data, it employs a semi-structured in-depth interviews (IDIs) with a purposively selected respondents from three most affected states of Northeast (Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states). In carrying out this, targeted population include two (2) senior instructors from five Madrassas from each of the three states while one (1) Mosque Sheik or senior cleric representative from 10 mosques from the three affected states will be interviewed. In addition, One (1) government agency personnel each from State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) from Borno, Adamawa and Yobe will also be engaged using IDIs to provide trends, behavioural analysis and perceptive on the subject matter. These agency are carefully chosen due to their direct involvement in the displacement, disaster and death of the people of the region by the Boko Haram's conflict. Also, IDIs are extended to one (1) Islamic scholar each from Religious Studies Department based on their expertise on the subject matter from University of Maiduguri, Adamawa State University, Yobe State Polytechnic, University of Ilorin, Ahmadu Bello University and University of Abuja. Secondary data will be sourced from books, journals, newspaper, unpublished theses and internet sources. Data got will be processed descriptively using a content analysis.