Africans see death as birth and departure but quite often, they turn death into a servant of life. This is deduced from what Africans do when death strikes.
Death as birth
In Africa, what is done to the dead body is very similar to what is done to a new-born baby as the table below indicates.
New-born baby Dead body
Baby washed Body washed
Surrounded by women Surrounded by women
Lying on the back Lying on the back
Dressed and exposed Dressed and exposed
Men outside Men outside
Gifts: money, clothes Gifts: money, clothes
Gathering of people Gathering of people
Feast ‘ feast’
Note: When the body is taken out of the house to start the burial rites, it can never be taken back into the same house. If it rains, the living take shelter while the body is covered in the compound. The meaning is that once a baby comes out of the womb, it can never go back to it. The house where the body has been lying becomes the womb from which the deceased is born to the other life.
Long ago, there used to be individuals whose bodies would not be taken out of the funeral house through the door; a hole used to be made in the wall for the body to be taken out through it. Chiefs, twins, traditional priests or doctors, religious specialists, etc.…used to be given such a treatment.
This is a clear caesarian operation: these people were considered ‘too big’ to be born normally! To push the analogy further, while women are wailing inside the house, men are sitting outside around the fire in the middle of the compound, drinking, making jokes and even laughing.
‘Likewise, while women, representing society, which is often thought of in feminine terms are giving birth painfully to the deceased, the men are waiting outside like one who has accompanied his wife to the maternity ward!
Why should a dead body be treated as a new-born baby?
It is because Africans see death as birth to the other world, birth into life in the spiritual realm, the world of the ancestors. Africans believe in life after death.
For them, life after death is a continuation of life here below; the person keeps his/her age and status in the afterlife and as such becomes an ancestor in the company of the dead who are close to us and who still influence our life.
Death as departure
Africans see death as a departure too. The deceased is referred to as the ‘one who has gone’, the departed. The whole village and clan gather around him/her to say ‘good bye’ and to accompany him or her to the gate of the underworld (the grave), which marks the end of the village of the living. He/she is already washed and dressed for the journey and people show their grief for the separation.
The grave is ambivalent
it is the land of the ancestors; the place where the living last saw the deceased, yet it is the sign that the deceased lived. This is why it has to be marked properly. Some people bury their dead by the roadside, as it happens among some tribes in D.R.Congo; it is a sign that their migration is not yet over. Sometimes, they put shoes on top of the grave to give this message to the deceased: we are still moving, follow us.
Death as a servant of life
Apart from the modern political gatherings, it is death that collects most people in Africa. The crowd is a negation of what death has done: death kills but it cannot wipe away the whole clan or village. People seem to say: we are still many!
Africans turn death into a servant of life by mourning together. Death brings out the identity of those mourning their dead. The funeral is a must attend for every member of the family, village and clan who are sometimes shown and mentioned by name.
Usually, the members of the clan and family, by their very presence renew their relations to each other; they solve the conflicts among themselves, work together to feed those who have come to the funeral and see to it that all goes well.
The gap left by the dead member of the family, clan and village is filled up by the unity of the living members at the funeral so that the mourning community comes out of the funeral stronger than before. Some tribes do not bury their dead before all the conflicts in the clan or family are settled.
The reasoning is as follows: Our community is weak and the dead body in front of us is the sign of our weakness since we have failed to secure the life of our brother/sister: we are weak because we are divided. Now, before the sign of our weakness vanishes from our midst, let us restore the unity that strengthens our community.
By Fr. Kanyike Edward MCCJ
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