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Funerals in Africa
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 ( 1981) and
Hertz ( 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  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  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
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 
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
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”
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
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).
6. See, for instance, on southern Africa (Palitza 2006; Ngubane 2004; Durham and Klaits
2002), Congo (Blakely and Blakely 1994: 410f; MacGa ey 1986), Kenya (Séraphin
2003a; Parkin 1991), Cameroon (Geschiere 2005; Jindra 2005; Séraphin 2003b), Nige-
ria (Smith 2004; Adamolekun 2001; Okaba 1997), Benin (Noret 2004a, 2004b), Togo
(Cantrell 1992), Ghana (Greene 2002 , de Witte 2001; Arhin 1994), and Ivory Coast
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