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Funerals in Africa
An Introduction
Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
In Africa, the events surrounding death are o en described as the key cultural
events of a particular area. Entire neighborhoods and villages are drawn to
them, and family members and friends who have migrated to other areas and
countries are lured back.  e funeral service and burial may only be a small
part of such funerary events. From mourning practices to dancing, drum-
ming, drinking, and eating, the events may, in some regions, involve planning
post-funerary activities over many months or years. Many have heard about
the tremendous resources funerary events o en consume, one example being
the fantastically carved and decorated co ns of southern Ghana, but this phe-
nomenon only touches on one aspect of a much more complex and involved
process. Most visibly, there are status concerns, family bonds, and succession
issues at stake, but under the surface—or perhaps better described as hovering
above—are the ancestors and other spirits and powers that add to the cultural
importance of these events, which across large areas of sub-Saharan Africa
have indeed become huge a airs.
ese events continue to provide crucial insights into the state of society, as
they are integral to social, economic, religious, and political life. For Western-
ers, among whom death is normally a private and family a air, this is some-
times hard to fathom, but in the African context, funerary rites are o en the
communal event sans pareil, with rami cations going well beyond the events
themselves.1 It is hard to overestimate their impact, as anyone who has lived
for a time on the continent can attest. In many African societies today, funer-
als and commemorations of deaths are the largest and most expensive cultural
events, with families harnessing vast amounts of resources to host lavish events
for multitudes. Government and church o cials alike o en decry these events
and try to regulate them, o en with little e ect. In fact, these elites are regularly
the same ones that involve themselves in huge funerals, since burying beyond
one’s means and literally “at all costs” (Noret 2010) is o en the implicit social
rule. On the world’s most economically frail continent, development experts
lament the resources channeled away from productive investment and used
instead in consumption of food, imported drinks, entertainment, and funeral
2 | Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
nery. “ is is not an e cient allocation of resources,” laments a development
economist (Economist 2007; see also Monga 1995). Yet in many places these
events keep getting larger.
is edited volume brings together scholars who have conducted research
across sub-Saharan Africa on funerals and post-funerary events. Speci cally,
this volume highlights how and why the practices, meanings, and beliefs as-
sociated with death have changed over the years, aspects of social change that
are little known or understood.  e causes are complex and numerous, and
vary depending on the region of sub-Saharan Africa.  e essays in this volume
discuss events from throughout the mortuary or funerary cycle, which can last
for years depending on particular regional practices. When funerals are held
very soon a er death, they may be relatively small, but grand preparations
are o en made for an event held months or years a er the death to “remem-
ber” the dead or to mark their passing to the land of the ancestors. In other
regions, as in the southern part of the West African coast, the increased use of
mortuaries in which bodies are kept frozen means that burials may be delayed
while elaborate preparations are made for funerals that can take place weeks,
months, or in some cases over a year a er death.
In most African regions, certain deceased have long been important because
they were central  gures in building institutions (especially lineage structures),
and thus played a key political role.  is social and political prominence was
expressed in elaborate death rituals.  e social and religious changes of the
colonial and postcolonial periods, however, brought about the development of
new (and sometimes competing) social hierarchies and further di erentiation
of the social and religious worlds, and led to an increased variety of important
dead being buried in honori c ways by those groups who wanted to build
their own status. In a sense, we are arguing in this book that there has been a
continuing (though changing over time) political signi cance to dead bodies
in Africa, a signi cance which involved more and more people as the religious
and social di erentiation increased on the continent during these later peri-
ods. Additionally, in contrast to older, Durkheimian-inspired understandings
of funerals in Africa as moments of social communion in the face of death,
we intend to show that funerals are major occasions for the (re)production
and the (un)making of both solidarities and hierarchies, both alliances and
con icts (see also Posel and Gupta 2009; Smith 2004 ; de Witte 2001: 51–80;
Vidal 1986). With this perspective, we also intend to highlight issues of succes-
sion and the reorganization of social and familial positions in dynamic social
con gurations, rather than social reproduction stricto sensu.
Other areas we address include changes in religious beliefs (e.g., the growth
of Christianity and Islam) and social structure (e.g., changes in social hierar-
chies and social breakdowns), along with processes of colonialism and indus-
trialization, urbanization, technological changes (e.g., the use of mortuaries),
Introduction | 3
and the more recent onset of AIDS pandemics, all of which appear as key fea-
tures in many parts of the continent. In sum, funerals and mortuary rites could
be said to comprise a “focal institution” (Adams 1981) that allows us to learn
much about the contemporary social and cultural situations on the continent
and how they have been shaped by various ideologies and forces: the stalwart
traditions, the powerful world religions, and the incessant attractions of edu-
cation, wealth, and mobility.2 Funerals are part and parcel of the moral orders
and “moral economies” of Africa, with the notions and powers of the living
and the dead tightly connected to the social organization and hierarchy of a
society, expressed in the reciprocities and consumption practices of everyday
life. Indeed, the crucial link between the living and the dead should be part of
the discussion of African political and economic change, as Chabal and Daloz
(1999: 66) have argued.
Writing on mortuary rituals
is volume follows a long-standing anthropological preoccupation with mor-
tuary ritual, which we can only brie y introduce. From the discussion of death
rites by Tylor and Frazer to the classic studies by Hertz and Van Gennep, and
more recently to Huntington and Metcalf (1979) and Bloch and Parry (1982),
there is a considerable corpus of work on the practices, social functions, and
meanings of death rites.  is is not surprising given the centrality of the insti-
tution and the complexity and ambiguity of the practices and beliefs.
A er the classic studies by Van Gennep and Hertz, a series of questions
evolved from research on funeral rites. If both Van Gennep ([1909] 1981) and
Hertz ([1907] 1970 ), for instance, consider mourning to be a social time cor-
responding to an assigned social position involving a series of prescriptions
(“positive” and “negative” rites, to quote Durkheim’s distinction), Hertz also de-
velops an interest in the articulation of mortuary rites with the “mental work”
(Hertz 1970:77) through which the deceased is progressively imagined “in a
new world,” by which interest he introduces the classic question of the rela-
tionship between funerals and the grieving or bereavement process. However,
if attempts to connect mortuary rites and the psychic process of grieving are
present in many classic works (Hertz 1970; Malinowski [1925] 1954; Radcli e-
Brown 1922; Durkheim 1912), the main line of thought in these classic texts
is that “society” is shaken by death, and that it progressively rebuilds its unity
and strength through mortuary rites that reinforce the group’s integration and
cohesion. Death is a crisis that requires a ritual treatment of the social body.
ese classic studies of mourning practices and mortuary rituals in anthro-
pology understandably have the weaknesses of the conceptions of society on
which they rely. In particular, funerals are scrutinized through the lens of a
4 | Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
uni ed, harmonious conception of society that downplays the questions of
domination, con ict, and change.
Working with a vision of society that takes political domination into con-
sideration, Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry have probably produced the
most in uential text that reexamines the grand issues laid out by these classic
works. Focusing on the symbolism of fertility in death rites, they underline
that a fundamental dimension of mortuary rites in many societies was to ex-
press an ideology of “regeneration of life.” From death are created regenerative
powers, and mortuary rites essentially rea rm a social (and political) order
and work to perpetuate it beyond the death of individuals and the succession
of generations (Bloch and Parry 1982: 15, 35).
Speci cally, in the same way Geertz (1959) suggested that “classical” anthro-
pological perspectives on ritual have contributed little to understanding the
complex relations between “ritual and social change,” Bloch and Parry’s thesis
does not really o er a completely satisfying picture of death rituals in di er-
entiated societies where the sources of authority and legitimacy are multiple.
Both the way authority is legitimized in contemporary African societies and
the di erentiation of the African religious landscape lead us to depict a more
complex and more fragmented portrait of many current African ritual systems
of regeneration of life. First, the political and religious di erentiation of many
African societies allows competing ritual systems and burial rites to develop.
ese di ering ritual practices may then enter into a certain state of symbio-
sis, uneasy coexistence, or even con ict. What di erent ritual systems aim to
regenerate and the kinds of regeneration that are at play may concern di erent
social or religious groups: for example, when Catholic (or other Christian)
rites are performed alongside (or simply replace) “traditional” lineage rites.
Second, in di erentiated (and hence plural) societies, the ritual e cacy of
the regeneration processes engaged by burial rites surely depends on the social
or cultural legitimacy of the ritual system that is performed. When mortuary
rituals engage regeneration processes, the e cacy of the latter inescapably de-
pends on the social status of the ritual. As Katherine Snyder puts it in her cri-
tique of Bloch’s theory of ritual, “rituals may lose their power to secure consent
when the political-economic context provides actors with alternatives to the
world view and ideology communicated through these rituals” (Snyder 1997:
562). In di erentiated societies, the social conditions of the e cacy of rituals
(see also Bourdieu [1975] 2001) are surely di erent than in societies where the
sources of authority and power are less multiple. For instance, lineage mortuary
rites have been increasingly challenged by Christian burials in many regions of
the continent throughout the twentieth century. In central Kenya, when colo-
nial authorities banned the practice of abandoning corpses to hyenas, people
experienced a radical shi in the way they handled death (Droz, Lamont, this
volume). In many other regions, more and more Christians have progressively,
Introduction | 5
in the last decades, disregarded the “traditional” ways of regenerating life, while
many others engaged in compromises between the path of lineage ritual and
Christian or Muslim practices (Langewiesche 2003; de Witte 2001).
In the societies we discuss in this volume, the di erent ritual processes of
the “regeneration of life” thus appear more fragmented, contested, and negoti-
ated between di erent social and religious groups than in Bloch and Parry’s
picture.  us we hope to o er a more complex picture of the structures of
authority and power relations in which mortuary rites actually take place in
contemporary Africa.
Mortuary rites and funerals on the continent
Beliefs and practices surrounding death get at the core of our critical sense
of human destiny and purpose. In Africa, however, they go even further, be-
ing intimately involved with social structure, group identity, and even poli-
tics. Religious traditions, kin groups, and social relationships in general play
a stronger role in funerals than in the West, where these events are generally
handled in more intimate circles and are usually much smaller. In fact, the
grand and spectacular bourgeois culture of death in nineteenth century Eu-
rope, epitomized in magni cent upper class tombstones (see Vovelle [1983]
2001: 532–650; Litten 1991; Ariès 1975), has since faded away. A very di er-
ent dynamic has taken place in Africa, where important funerals proliferated
throughout the twentieth century, as we see in this volume. In several Western
countries, funerals are now regularly held dans l’intimité familiale (among only
close family) as the French put it, a desire almost unheard of in Africa. As in
Africa (though in contrasting ways), changes in both family dynamics and re-
ligion, such as the decline of Christianity in Europe, seem to have played a
role here. e “individualization” and “repression” of death due to a number of
factors, including longer life spans, are also important, all of which have com-
bined to push death “behind the scenes” (Elias 1985: 12). Additionally, while
family members in the West may  nd mortuary costs rather high on a per-
sonal level, there is no question of these costs having an impact on national
development, as is the situation in Africa, where funeral expenses can play a
major role in economies (Mazzucato et al. 2006; Monga 1995). Indeed, the
central role funerals play contributes to the frustration of development experts
and economists, who are regularly disappointed that humans are not homo
economicus and that ordinary African rationales concerning funerals are not
those of CEOs considering cost-cutting measures. Death may tear a hole in
human hearts in the West as it does everywhere, but it does not rip the social
fabric to the extent it does in Africa, with its stronger reliance on human rela-
tionships for subsistence.
6 | Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
Moreover, funerary events in Africa have o en been seen to be a realm
of social life that is more “traditional” than others.  is is probably why an-
thropologists and ethnologists have tended to depict them in an ethnographic
present with a focus on the complexities of their ritual logics, even in more re-
cent collections (Liberski 1989, 1994; Henry and Liberski 1991). A discussion
was o en missing of how these rites evolved in the context of broader social
changes in African rural and urban worlds. African mortuary rites can even
be considered to be one of the key sites of the anthropological production of
the image of “traditional” Africa.3 e place they occupied in this image helps
us understand why they have attracted the attention of historians, and of an-
thropologists more sensible to historical perspectives, only in the last decades.
ese events, however, have changed substantially. Answering questions on
the evolution of the size of mortuary events, though, is not easy because of
a lack of clear historical data about a number of areas, and because accounts
of the changes in size of funerals are sometimes ambiguous. Historically, ac-
counts of funerary rites indicate that the wealth of the slave trade enabled lav-
ish funerals (which at the same time were deplored by observers) as early as
the late seventeenth century in Angola, for instance (Vansina 2005: 24; see
also  ornton 2002: 79). Just north along the Loango coast area, cloth (much
of it imported) was wrapped extravagantly on corpses at “great man” funerals
in the eighteenth century (Martin 1986: 3), and in the late nineteenth century
in the Kinshasa and Brazzaville area due to the colonial and mission in ux
of wealth, which only intensi ed previously existing practices of conspicuous
consumption at certain funerals (Vansina 1973: 211f).
In the Gold Coast area, accounts from the early eighteenth to the nineteenth
centuries indicated that funerals have “always” been “the main social event in
the Akan society of Ghana,” evoking the “considerable sums” of money and
goods that were spent, and even the phenomena of pawning and enslave-
ment linked to the debts ensuing from funeral expenses (van der Geest 2000:
104–105).4 Similarly, in nineteenth century Yorubaland, paying for funerary
expenses was one of the “most common reasons why people went into debt,”
and unpaid debts o en led to pawning or even slavery (Peel 2000: 60–62),
as it also did in early nineteenth century Angola (Vansina 2005: 24n95).
Moreover, funerals of important political  gures were also major occasions
for human sacri ce in nineteenth century Yorubaland (Peel 2000: 66–71),
as was also the case during the  nal rituals of the funerals of the king in
the neighboring Dahomean kingdom (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1964), a practice
which of course came to an end by the colonial era.  is historical evidence
indicates that these events o en changed with changes in religion and the
political economy, and they also indicate the long-standing economic, social,
and political signi cance of funerals, especially of major social  gures along
the Atlantic coast.5
Introduction | 7
However, in some regions of the continent, the great size and lavishness
of funerals is relatively recent, as older early twentieth century accounts of
funerals indicate they were rather small, except funerals given for social or
political elites. For instance, many large “death celebrations” of the Grass elds
in Cameroon look at  rst glance to be quite traditional, with the presence of
Grass elds gowns, performances by dance groups using traditional instru-
ments, speci c foods and drinks, and the  ring of old guns. Most observers,
including Cameroonians themselves, take these celebrations to be so. But his-
torical research reveals they have changed radically over the past century, not
only in the elements of the event, but in their timing, their frequency, and
for whom they’re held.  ey are not quite so “traditional” as thought (Jindra
2005). Among the Kikuyu and Meru of central Kenya, for instance, only cer-
tain old men, and more rarely old women, were buried, the other dead being
abandoned to hyenas and failing to become ancestors (Droz, Lamont, this vol-
ume). Dramatic long-term changes such as the shi , seen in a number of areas,
from the fearful disposal of bodies to ritual and public burial in compounds
or cemeteries, has gone largely unnoticed by scholars. In general, a survey of
the Africanist literature on funerals6 leaves us with evidence that funerary rites
have signi cantly increased in number, size, and cost, even in areas where they
had been rather large before.
In addition to its lack of sensibility to social change, another classical “bias”
of colonial anthropology in Africa was its focus on elite burials, which had the
richest symbolism and the most important political implications.  is went
hand in hand in most cases with a silencing of the voices of “subaltern” people,
and with little attention paid to categories such as funerals for the young (see
Honwana and De Boeck 2005). So it is common to  nd accounts of the deaths
of “senior men” (Forde 1962), elites, and rulers, from which we learn much
about the structure and ranking of society, but we o en learn very little about
the funerary rites of others, in particular women and children. As Vaughan
(2008: 393) points out, anthropologist Audrey Richards included a discussion
of the death and grand burial of a Bemba paramount chief in her monograph,
but le out any mention of the “ignominious” death and burial of a woman
who died in childbirth, even though it was recorded in her notes.
As the interest in social change developed and more dynamic conceptions of
African societies gained space in the wake of the Manchester School, Georges
Balandier in France, Marxist (mostly French) anthropology, and historically
sensitive symbolic approaches (Fernandez 1978), a whole body of literature
linking funerals and social change progressively emerged.  e  rst chapter of
this volume provides an extensive and analytical review of this corpus by ex-
amining how and why funerary practices extensively changed in many places
across the continent, especially over the last century. Changes in social struc-
tures and hierarchies are tied to changes in funerary rituals and processes,
8 | Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
while transformations involving the world religions are also highlighted. More
contemporary evolutions, such as the use of mortuaries and the rise of AIDS,
are also addressed.
e di erent chapters of this book build on this in various respects.  e
study of urban funerals is one example. Consistent with the already mentioned
focus of classical anthropology on “traditional” death rites, they received little
attention in African studies until recent decades, and a history of funerals in
urban Africa is largely yet to be written. Engaging this issue in the impressively
well documented second chapter, Terence Ranger shows how, in contrast to
common views of townships as places of cultural alienation, crucial social dy-
namics shaped a new religious and political urban culture of death in colonial
Bulawayo. Between the ritual relocations of deceased urban Ndebele to their
rural places of origin and the performance of full funerary ceremonies in these
rural Ndebele communities, Christian versions of “traditional” Ndebele funer-
ary rites elaborated by “independent” African churches, and liturgies of the
mission churches, various methods for digni ed deaths and burials have coex-
isted in the di erent African populations and ethnic groups that have formed
the colonial city of Bulawayo.  e extensive development of burial societies
also played a key role in this process, in providing various forms of assistance
to bereaved families, and in making costly funeral feasts possible. Actually,
it  nally emerges that death is more di cult to dignify in today’s Bulawayo
than under colonial rule, since the progress of AIDS, the changes in relations
between generations, and increased death rates among young people have led
to more casual attitudes towards death in recent days.
Te re nc e R a ng er ’s text is undoubtedly a properly historical one. Nevertheless,
most of the following chapters should be considered as “historically minded”
anthropology rather than stricto sensu history, and their historical concerns
di er, as does the historical depth of the issues they raise. Yvan Droz’s chapter,
however, charts signi cant evolutions in the disposal of corpses among the
Kikuyu since the 1930s. Mobilizing oral histories and existing studies, Droz
rst shows how the system of disposal of corpses in the bush that existed prior
to the implementation of burial was grounded in a system of distribution of
social status that was tightly linked to age and righteousness: only old people
with a certain high status in Kikuyu society were buried, while all the other
dead were “thrown” to hyenas and other scavengers. Since the 1930s, however,
under the double constraint of colonial administration and Christian mission-
ary concerns, burial was made compulsory. In today’s Kikuyu society, being
buried on one’s own plot of land has become the minimum criterion for a dig-
ni ed burial, at least in rural areas, and a burial in public cemeteries is largely
regarded as a sign of the poor management of a person’s existence, or of a bad,
untimely death. In that respect, the diverse forms of burial that exist today
among the Kikuyu still re ect di erent degrees of personal achievement, as
Introduction | 9
the distinction between the disposal and burial of corpses did at the beginning
of twentieth century.
A very complementary chapter by Mark Lamont follows. In this text, Lam-
ont examines the changing conceptions of death pollution among the Meru,
a group geographically and linguistically close to the Kikuyu. Indeed, follow-
ing the implementation of burial by the colonial administration in the central
Kenya highlands in the 1930s, the Meru were confronted by the obligation to
bury corpses, which were mostly abandoned to scavengers in the preceding
decades, as in the Kikuyu case. However, while Droz focuses on the more or
less dignifying forms of burials that emerged in the last two-thirds of the last
century in the new culture of burial of the Kikuyu, Lamont focuses on how the
Meru “pollution complex” was reworked since the 1930s under the triple e ect
of the enforced shi to burial ordered by colonial authorities, Christianiza-
tion, and land reforms that increasingly led to a “secondary” use of burials as
markers of possession of land in the central Kenyan Highlands in the 1960s.
However, Lamont’s vivid ethnography also stresses that death pollution is still
an important issue among the Meru today, especially in the case of untimely
or “bad” deaths.
A decline in death pollution and the generalization of burials are also at
the heart of the cultural dynamics that have led to the multiplication of “death
celebrations” in the Cameroon Grass elds, at the intersection point of West
and Central Africa, as Michael Jindra shows in the next chapter. Here, along
with a reduction of the fear surrounding death, changes in social structure
(marked by a decline of “traditional” hierarchies) and transformations in the
conceptions of the a erlife due to the impact of Christianity (and its promise
of an a erlife for every human being) in particular have allowed more and
more families and individuals to celebrate their dead through “death celebra-
tions” which were celebrated only for a restricted male social elite in the  rst
decades of the twentieth century. Today, diverse concerns and traditions o en
combine quite peacefully at these events, where ambiguities of the local reli-
gious context concerning the dead seem to be expressed through respective
Christian ideas and ceremonies and the underlying desire for the much sought
a er benevolence of the ancestors. Combining, here as in many other places,
with status concerns, these di erent motivations are all mixed and impossible
to separate when examining the rise of death celebrations, and one should
avoid the secular temptation to reduce religious motives to instrumental or
functional ones.
Even before the systematic colonial enterprise that came out of the Berlin
Conference, missionary encounters have largely played their part in framing
the evolutions of death rites and funerals to come in the following decades
and throughout the twentieth century.  is became even more evident when
encounters became more properly colonial. In the next chapter, Katrin Lange-
10 | Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
wiesche continues to explore the patterns of interaction between religious
traditions that research on funerals helps to chart. rough historical and eth-
nographic research on obsequies in the Yatenga Province of Burkina Faso, she
shows how, in this region historically marked by religious pluralism, the issue
is o en the need for religious actors and institutions to reach compromises
without compromising themselves. Langewiesche insists on the contextual
and pragmatic nature of compromises or arrangements between religious tra-
ditions, which sometimes—as was the case for the Catholic Church—preceded
the more theoretical developments and re ections on “inculturation.” People’s
strategic interests play a key role here, as does the changing social status of
the di erent religions.  e current situation is characterized in particular by
the fact that “traditional” religious practices are no longer considered as a suf-
cient, legitimate religious a liation, and are now commonly performed by
people claiming a simultaneous Christian or Muslim identity.
Drawing on  eldwork conducted in Benin’s most popular prophetic church,
the Celestial Church of Christ, Joël Noret’s chapter engages more directly the
debated issue of “syncretism.” As several chapters of this book demonstrate,
interactions between religious traditions are common in Africa, and funerals
can be key sites of more or less diplomatic debates over proper religious proce-
dures in order to ensure a dignifying burial. Depending on local situations and
doctrinal positions, relations between religious groups can be either more or
less supple and favorable to entanglement and close cohabitation, or violently
“anti-syncretic” in their attitudes. In this range of possibilities, the Celestial
Church of Christ has for several decades adopted a clear position of opposi-
tion to “traditional” lineage rites, which are emphatically proscribed when the
church is in charge of the burial of one of its members, even if compromises
with lineage authorities and family members o en remain possible. Moreo-
ver, this “anti-syncretic” position combines with a sense of religious synthesis
in the ritual framework that the church has established to manage the death
of its members. Actually, despite their mostly confrontational discourses on
“traditional” lineage rites, Celestials regularly hold conceptions of the  gure
of the dead that bear the mark of both Catholic Christianity and “traditional”
ancestral cults.
e last two chapters, by Marleen de Witte and Jonathan Roberts, prolong
this interest in the African conception of the dead in two di ering ways. In-
deed, de Witte evokes the ambiance of lavish display of Asante funerals, where
huge sums of money are spent to organize memorable events whose richness
will impress the attendees. In the Asante region, the disposal of the corpse ac-
quires a more prominent status the longer it stays in a mortuary before burial,
as does the use of various media to capture multiple images of the obsequies.
In fact, contemporary funerals produce an idealized image of the deceased
to be remembered.  e dressing and preparation of the corpse is therefore
Introduction | 11
subject to much attention: it must present an image of the good life. Addition-
ally, Christian notions of personhood and of the a erlife continue to have a
profound in uence today on the modes of relationships people have with the
departed. Current pictures of the dead draw in some respects on past uses of
terra-cotta heads during elite burial rites, but also highlight important changes:
for instance, photographs now help in remembering the dead a er the funeral,
while in the past terra-cotta  gures were abandoned a er the ceremonies. In
this respect, as we see in other contributions, ancestors may in a sense be more
present than in the past, even when they are no more worshipped as such.
Finally, in an ethnographically rich chapter, Jonathan Roberts accounts for
current Ga death rites in the suburbs of Accra, showing both continuities and
innovations in a set of funeral practices mostly thought of locally as inherited
from the forebears.  e treatment of the corpses and the eschatological stakes
of the ceremonies here receive particular attention. Ritually ensuring a transi-
tion of the deceased toward the a erlife seems essential in these moments,
and this is precisely the dimension of mortuary rituals that fetish interment
practices (locally known as agbalegba) mirror at di erent and malevolent
ends. Small co ns, wooden human  gurines, and body parts are essential in-
gredients for these “shadow ceremonies,” which are secretly held at night and
imitate conventional burial rites in order to bring misfortune and death to a
targeted person. In fact, such occult uses of mortuary symbolism reveal the
expected outcomes of ordinary funerals: not only the peaceful transition of a
soul to the a erlife, but also the possible ritual manipulations of this eschato-
logical passage. Putting the spirits of dead people at work for malevolent ends,
such widely feared rituals also highlight how serious the power of the dead is
in contemporary Ghana.
In sum, these chapters cover a wide range of issues related to the current
dynamics of African funerals, and we hope these chapters help the reader un-
derstand essential dimensions of funerary rites in Africa.  ere are not many
other topics through which one can not only get a sense of the deepest un-
derstandings of a people as expressed in such a visual and open way, but also
see how these understandings have changed over time. With such a complex
phenomenon on such a large, diverse continent, it is impossible to be compre-
hensive, but this volume should at least provide a framework to understand fu-
nerary rites and their histories. We also hope that it encourages future scholars
to add further enlightenment to what we have presented here.
e volume editors would like to acknowledge Marleen de Witte, Jan Vansina, Benjamin
Rubbers, and the anonymous reviewers of this volume for their input. Others who helped in
various ways include Betty Videto and the interlibrary loan sta at Spring Arbor University.
12 | Michael Jindra and Joël Noret
Some of the major themes of this book were  rst presented in a paper by Michael Jindra,
“Mortuary Ritual and Religious Change in Africa,” delivered at the Baylor University con-
ference “Global Christianity” in November 2005. A faculty scholarship grant from Spring
Arbor University also provided assistance. Finally, the editors would both like to thank their
families for their patience while this rather complex project was completed.
1. For instance, see Shipton (2007: 159), who describes the event as the “the biggest deal”
among the Luo in Kenya. Similar comments about death rites are o en found in other
2.  is volume focuses less on the smaller, more isolated populations that are not as con-
nected to wider networks, such as hunter-gatherers, nomadic groups, forest groups,
and other small-scale populations, and more on the bulk of the African population
that is more connected to the state and the wider economy, and that usually has at least
some members who are teachers, civil servants, businessmen, and other members of
the middle class.
3.  is is particularly evident in the work of French anthropologist Louis-Vincent
omas, who was still lamenting in the 1990s that the traditional wisdom of “ethnic”
funerary rites was now confronted by the unprecedented “destructive attacks” of Is-
lam, Christianity, and “Western Civilization” ( omas 1995: 64), a perspective that
actually o ers little insight into current funerary changes.
4. Kwame Arhin, however, mentions a major change in scale during the  rst phase of
colonial rule around the turn of the century, as the event became more secularized
(1994: 313).
5. At the other end of the social hierarchy, the slave trade prompted a “spiritual cataclysm
when bodies along the trading routes were disposed without ritual treatment (Brown
2008: 43). And at the other end of the slave routes, their centrality to culture was re-
vealed in how Africans in the Western hemispheric diaspora identi ed themselves
according to di ering funerary practices (Brown 2008: 64;  ornton 1998: 227).
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... Concepts such as ancestry, commonly used in relation to collective tombs, can represent a collection of meanings and situations: in some cases, ancestors are just vague reminders of things past, while in others they are active agents that have an impact on living populations (Whitley 2002). The case of Madagascar illustrates well this variability as collective burial practices by neighbouring communities mark divergent ideas about death and play different social roles (Bloch 1971;Jindra & Noret 2011). ...
... Burial practices in Madagascar do not seem to have great historical depth as there is a limited number of built tombs known, nor do houses at Benin contain hundreds of interments spanning several generations. Despite the 'traditional' label, burial customs in these places are the result of ever-evolving rites (Jindra & Noret 2011). While funerary changes in modern Africa may have been accelerated by the disruptive colonial practices of the last 500 years, they send a powerful message about how the 'traditional' label hides continuous changes in burial practices. ...
... Of course, ideology and systems of belief can change defying any logical explanation, triggering changes in the related funerary domain. At the other side of the spectrum, funerary customs may be altered due to conscious choices following social, economic and political reasons (Carr 1995;Jindra & Noret 2011). Given the dynamic history of Crete during the Bronze Age, including interconnections with populations outside the island, cultural variability and major socio-political changes, all aspects of the funerary customs are to be expected to have been in a constant flow. ...
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Large collective tombs2 seem to be a popular feature across the Mediterranean and most of continental Europe from the end of the Neolithic into the first phases of the Bronze Age (ca. 4000-2000 BC). Collective burial deposits were just one of the several types of interments that formed the complex funerary customs of the period, but their significance at this time is unparalleled in European history since. Amongst the popularity of collective tombs in the 4th and 3rd millennium BC, Crete proves to be exceptional due to the almost exclusive use of tombs with commingled burial deposits for more than a millennium (ca. 3200-1800 BC;), which contrasts starkly against the burial variability in most other Mediterranean regions. At the same time, this is a millennium in which the island’s communities saw major changes in their size and complexity with significant developments in demography, settlement patterns, economic and political organisation. One cannot but feel that the effort and resources put on the Cretan collective tombs mark them as an important social arena at the forefront of these changes and that the exceptional burial record may have played a role in the development and sustainability of complex societies in the island at a moment when these were extremely rare across the Mediterranean. This article analyses this Cretan exceptionality in its Mediterranean context by reviewing the newly published bioarchaeological and taphonomic data from the tombs and contextualising it within the rich knowledge of the funerary record that has been developed in the last two decades.
... With this understanding, the funeral and arobaini ceremonies in Songea Rural highlight the importance of community support systems in reassembling relatives from across the region and the country, and the overwhelming material and social support. Social interactions and reconnections, as well as the preparation of space and meals for numerous guests, drive the experience of a funeral there, much as Jindra and Noret (2011a) outline. ...
... Families and communities redistribute material items such as land and money soon after a funeral, and many powercentric relationships and social bonds are addressed during and through funerary rituals (Conklin, 1995;Corr, 2008;Hollimon, 2001;Metcalf & Huntington, 1979). Social bonds are also strengthened merely by attendance at the funeral, where people reconnect to reaffirm relationships and beliefs (Metcalf & Huntington, 1979); Jindra and Noret (2011a) in particular argue that "funerals are major occasions for the (re)production and the (un)making of both solidarities and hierarchies, both alliances and conflicts" (p. 2), and focus on the changing ways in which this occurs. Droz (2011) explains how, among the Kikuyu in Kenya, ...
For two months in the summer of 2010, I lived in Peramiho Village with a Tanzanian family and conducted ethnographic fieldwork on grief rituals and support systems for my undergraduate thesis. When I returned to Peramiho from September 2011 to November 2012, my further observations of the mourning process more clearly foregrounded narratives. This article focuses on grief narratives in Tanzania as stories that connect people to each other and to the land. Short-term narratives in particular act as rites of incorporation: storytellers initiate others into a shared community and show survivors grappling to ground their experiences with death, a form of control over chaos as they repeatedly narrate events. The mourning process that follows, which includes a secondary funeral ritual and year-long restricted practices, transforms grief and memory, and therefore the narratives themselves. Collected stories provide the structure of this essay, marking shifts in my experience and understanding of the grief process in Peramiho.
... There is a rich corpus of literature focusing on death, funerals, cemeteries and burials in Africa (Ademiluka 2009;Dennie 1992;James 2009;Droz 2011;Jindra 2011;Jindra and Noret 2011;Lee 2011Lee , 2012Lee and Vaughan 2008;Maloka 1998;Van der Geest 2006;Geschiere 2005;De Boeck 2008). Such literature includes references to funerals and burials of people that have moved from their places of birth and died in places other than their villages or towns of origin. ...
... To be buried in one's home village is seen as an obligation rather than a choice (Geschiere 2005). Among the Kikuyu of Kenya, dignified burials are perceived to be those that take place in one's plot of land in the rural village (Jindra and Noret 2011). However, these occasions to reaffirm belonging are not uniform across the African continent. ...
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This book is an exploration of the ways religion and diverse forms of mobility have shaped post-apartheid Johannesburg. By mobility, we refer to not only transnational and intra-national migration but also movements of commodities, ideas and forms, the traffic of objects, sounds and colours within the city. By taking this approach, we aim to re-theorize religion and urban super-diversity (Vertovec 2007, 2015): here super-diversity is viewed not simply in terms of the plurality of religious, ethnic, national and racial groups, but conceived in terms of the multiple movements and enclosures through which religion produces and permeates urban space . The relationship between religion, mobility and urbanization involves both temporal and spatial diversity and the shifting borders of spatial production, belonging and exclusion . This is a constant process of territorialization and de-territorialization of physical, aesthetic and symbolic forms of the city. We argue here that while religion allows for a sense of belonging and capacitates movement, freedom and aspiration in the city, it is also complicit in establishing new forms of enclosure, moral order and spatial and gendered control.
... ere is a rich corpus of literature focusing on death, funerals, cemeteries and burials in Africa (Ademiluka 2009;Dennie 1992;James 2009;Droz 2011;Jindra 2011;Jindra and Noret 2011;Lee 2011Lee , 2012Lee and Vaughan 2008;Maloka 1998;Van der Geest 2006;Geschiere 2005;De Boeck 2008). Such literature includes references to funerals and burials of people that have moved from their places of birth and died in places of reference for the living. ...
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This chapter examines various waves of migration and their processes of settlement in Greater Rosettenville in south Johannesburg from a historical and contemporary perspective. We explore how various migrant groups have gained access to sacred spaces and this exploration leads to an analysis of these spaces as pivotal in the process of place making. We discuss here the process of place making, examining the case of a longstanding but dwindling Jewish community residing in the area and contingently sharing the synagogue space with a more recently settled Congolese Pentecostal congregation. We begin from the standpoint that when communities move to a new area, the manners in which they claim these spaces are as diverse as people themselves. By exploring the ways in which the Jewish and the Congolese migrant community occupy the same religious space, we hope to shed light on the relationship between mobility, diversity, and politics of the sacred in the city.
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The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31) has attracted many interpretations from different cultural and theological contexts. But one thread that holds most of the works together is structural disparity in human society and the reality of judgement in the afterlife. This article re-reads the parable within the context of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). This method of re-reading the parable in this particular context (of COVID-19) is to serve two major purposes within the Nigerian and global sphere. First, it demonstrates how humans in their (dis)ingenuity try to outwit the moral and theological, and even the eschatological, import it is meant to serve. Second, it elucidates that despite human efforts to manoeuvre theological truth, the faithful should be encouraged to abide in the truth.
This article uses the death and burial of one of the most important political leaders in twentieth-century Africa, and Nigeria's first and only ceremonial president, Rt. Hon. (Dr.) Nnamdi Azikiwe, to reflect on how and why the deaths and burials of significant persons in Africa represent occasions for the (re)production and management of cultural crises. It argues that the extant literature on the death of consequential persons in Africa either understates or overlooks the generalizability of the “essential contestability” of the material and immaterial relations of the past, present, and future provoked by such deaths. This is particularly visible when these relations are disturbed or challenged by the absence of the person and the process of their burial or reburial.
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This book shows how citizens' cultural responses to disease epidemics and mass death counteract conservative, authoritarian state regimes. The Kingdom of eSwatini (Swaziland) is Africa's last absolute monarchy and the country with the world's highest HIV prevalence for over a decade. This book shows how wage labor, religious practices, and collaborations with NGOs and global health organizations involved preparing for death and funerals. New insurance and mortuary markets reshaped and financialized funerals and produced new deathways that were in sharp contrast to what the state claimed were authentic and traditional. Many of these forms and practices―newly catered funeral feasts, an expanded market for life insurance, and the kingdom’s first crematorium―are now conspicuous across the landscape and culturally disruptive in a highly traditionalist setting. Whether AIDS or COVID-19, this book shows how disease epidemics become grounds for citizens to engage in cultural and political reforms around aspirations for work. This quest for dignity through work--to make livelihoods--also galvanizes ongoing pro-democracy movements in Africa and around the world.
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This chapter explores the relationship between mobility , belonging and places of burial. The focus is on foreign migrants who die in Johannesburg and are buried on foreign land, away from their hometowns and countries of origin. Questions about where in the City of Johannesburg foreign migrants are buried and how decisions around burial place are made are of interest. These questions are informed by historical patterns of burials in South Africa, as they are a reflection of broader societal orders and past racial hierarchies. We take an historical perspective on the evolving spatial regimes of cemeteries to illustrate this point. In our efforts to understand the choices (or lack of thereof) the living make around the burial place for deceased foreign migrants, we engage with the concept of place making and challenge its traditional deployment in the literature in light of our focus on the current burials in a foreign land. In engaging this concept, we use data gathered through interviews with key informants, namely, public servants, representatives of funeral parlours and different foreign migrant groups residing in Johannesburg.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine how families deal with bereavement in Kenya. Our discussion is based on the constructivist assumption that bereaved individuals and families construct the meaning of the death of a loved one, shaped by the cultural context but not determined by it. The colonial experience disrupted and reshaped the traditions and belief systems of the numerous ethnic groups in Kenya. We provide an overview of traditional religion and spirituality in three Kenyan ethnic groups (Luo, Luhya, and Embu), give an overview of Kenyan family structure, and then provide a brief case study of a bereavement experience in each of the three tribes. We apply the family strengths perspective to the case study material, illustrating family strengths with excerpts from the bereaved individuals whom we interviewed. Implications of our findings include that established cultural practices support family and community mourning, but that no rituals are in place to support individual mourning, giving little room for grieving at the individual level. Professionals who work outside of their own culture, particularly internationally, will be effective only to the extent that they have cultural awareness and the ability to make sensitive interventions from a global perspective.
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We investigated the state of music education in government primary schools in the Cape Peninsula (Western Cape Province, South Africa) as perceived by the general class teacher. Since the first democratic elections in South Africa (1994), the entire primary and secondary school education system has changed drastically in terms of content, and general class teachers (not music specialist teachers) are now responsible for music education within the Arts and Culture learning area. We aimed to identify and analyze problems that these teachers experience in implementing the music component of the revised curriculum. A structured questionnaire was sent to all primary schools in the Cape Peninsula; the response rate was 51.7%. Findings are discussed and interpreted against the historical background of education in South Africa and relevant music philosophical perspectives. January 27, 2005 September 12, 2005
It is a classical anthropological paradox that symbols of rebirth and fertility are frequently found in funerary rituals throughout the world. The original essays collected here re-examine this phenomenon through insights from China, India, New Guinea, Latin America, and Africa. The contributors, each a specialist in one of these areas, have worked in close collaboration to produce a genuinely innovative theoretical approach to the study of the symbolism surrounding death, an outline of which is provided in an important introduction by the editors. The major concern of the volume is the way in which funerary rituals dramatically transform the image of life as a dialectic flux involving exchange and transaction, marriage and procreation, into an image of a still, transcendental order in which oppositions such as those between self and other, wife-giver and wife-taker, Brahmin and untouchable, birth and therefore death have been abolished. This transformation often involves a general devaluation of biology, and, particularly, of sexuality, which is contrasted with a more spiritual and controlled source of life. The role of women, who are frequently associated with biological processes, mourning and death pollution, is often predominant in funerary rituals, and in examining this book makes a further contribution to the understanding of the symbolism of gender. The death rituals and the symbolism of rebirth are also analysed in the context of the political processes of the different societies considered, and it is argued that social order and political organisation may be legitimated through an exploitation of the emotions and biology.
Dès le XVIII e siècle, les cérémonies longues et complexes, en partie sanglantes, auxquelles les Européens donnèrent le nom de « Coutumes » ou « Customs », frappèrent l'imagination des voyageurs qui osaient s'aventurer à l'intérieur du Dahomey. Aujourd'hui, malgré les descriptions relativement nombreuses qui sont entre nos mains l'étude des coutumes reste à faire ; elles offrent un champ fertile d'investigations à l'historien comme à l'ethnographe et au sociologue.
How has the way of handling the deceased changed given the development of morgues in several urbanized areas in sub-Saharan Africa? A redistribution of "funeral work", potentially longer periods of time between death and burial, possible modifications in family ceremonies and rites: a morgue turns out to be a central institution when we try to understand changing funeral practices in southern Benin as well as in other areas of Africa having undergone similar developments. Other aspects of this phenomenon are explored, such as the morgue's partial integration in funeral rituals or the transformation of these rituals into a key expression of a funeral ideology.
This groundbreaking book addresses issues of the keenest interest to anthropologists, specialists on Africa, and those concerned with international aid and development. Drawing on extensive research among the Luo people in Western Kenya and abroad over many years, Parker Shipton provides an insightful general ethnography. In particular, he focuses closely on nonmonetary forms of exchange and entrustment, moving beyond anthropology's traditional understanding of gifts, loans, and reciprocity. He proposes a new view of the social and symbolic dimensions of economy over the full life course, including transfers between generations. He shows why the enduring cultural values and aspirations of East African people-and others around the world-complicate issues of credit, debt, and compensation. The book examines how the Luo assess obligations to intimates and strangers, including the dead and the not-yet-born. Borrowing, lending, and serial passing along have ritual, religious, and emotional dimensions no less than economic ones, Shipton shows, and insight into these connections demands a broad rethinking of all international aid plans and programs.