Various Funeral Customs in South Africa

Funeral customs in South Africa come in a variety of forms. South Africa is not called the rainbow nation for nothing. The different races and cultures spell variety all the way.

Of course the fact that South Africa has a shortage of burial space means that sometimes customs are being ignored as more modern methods try to tackle the bursting population growth and the urbanisation sprawl. All over the world major cities are struggling with the same dilemma as they try to find a viable option to the traditional burial. There are some innovative and very creative ideas being put forward.

The Country’s most Famous Xhosa followed Tradition

Nelson MandelaFuneral customs in South Africa, South Africa’s first democratically elected President, was a member of the Xhosa tribe which is part of the Nguni people. Xhosa traditions dictate that the coffin is covered in a lion skin – an honour that only high ranking people are given.

Traditionally, AbaThembu use their homestead as the burial place where their deceased are buried, and Nelson Mandela was buried in his home village near Qunu, his ancestral homeland.

In the Xhosa custom, after the funeral, a period of ukuzila (mourning) for the bereaved family will be observed. Following the death of the head of the household various restrictions apply to daily activities, diet and even dress code.

After the mourning period is over, Ukubuyisa follows. This is a ritual for an important member, where the spirit of the deceased can be brought back into the family as a guiding ancestor. This is just one of the many funeral customs in South Africa.

Some of the other interesting funeral customs in South Africa

    • Catholics. Death is not seen as an end to life, but rather the start of a new one. Mourners see the body for a certain time before a requiem mass is held. At the burial site, the body is annointed by the priest and then buried.
    • Jews. After the funeral a week’s mourning is held at the home of the family known as Shiva. All mirrors in the house are covered and members of the family don’t bath, shave or wear make-up.
    • Christians.  There are many denominations within Christianity and they hold varying views on funeral processes. It is wise to contact your local clergy to get clarity on the general ideas around Christian funerals.
    • Muslims. The burial is carried out within 24 hours. It is forbidden for those in mourning to wail excessively. Bathing the body and shrouding it is carried out quickly. Next of kin observe a 3-day mourning period. Widows observe an extended mourning (iddah) period and during this time she may not marry, wear decorative clothing or jewelry.
    • Hindus.  Funerals are held within 24 hours of the death. The body is kept at home, facing south. A member of the family will repeat God’s name into the right ear of the deceased. The last rites of the deceased are considered to be the most important ritual for Hindus because it allows for a peaceful journey to God. Small coins are thrown on the way to the crematorium to show that in death, everyone is made equal, and the wealthy can’t take anything with them.
    • Zulus. Death by illness is handled differently to death by murder. Various rituals and ceremonies are observed to remove impurities and to also send the deceased into the next world. In the Shembe Church, funeral services are normally held on Sundays, and depending on the seniority of the deceased, a cowhide is used to wrap around the body.
    • Tsonga or Shangaan.  The period of mourning for spouses is one year and during this time even sexual activity is put on hold. With rural Tsongas, men are usually buried in the cattle-kraal. An ox is slaughtered so as to send the deceased’s soul to the ancestral spirits.



Today, South Africa has many cities and townships and many South Africans are becoming more urbanized. There are still many different funeral customs in South Africa to be found, but worldly values are bringing about rapid change. The bottom line is that customs and rituals are therapeutic to the bereaved. The various stages help people work towards life getting back to normal again.

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All info was correct at time of publishing