About Burial Rituals in South Africa

Burial Rituals in South Africa with its many religions requires many different rituals as life does not end with death, but continues in a spiritual realm. Africans believe strongly in the concept of ancestors, meaning that to them, people who die continue to ‘live’ in the community, and communicate with their families.

The whole goal of their life is to become an ancestor after death. To achieve this one needs to have the ‘correct’ funeral which will ensure a safe and peaceful passing. This will ensure no harmful spirit of the ancestor returns to bring trouble to the living relatives. The dead must be detached from the living, and given a smooth transition into the next life.

This has given rise to the many burial rituals in South Africa that have become part of the culture of the various tribes and groups in South Africa.

Typical Burial Rituals in South Africa (of African descent)

Burial Rituals in South AfricaPreparation

  • If someone dies at home, all windows are smeared with ash, pictures turned around, mirrors covered, and the television and other reflective surfaces covered. This is to prevent the dead seeing themselves.
  • The bed is removed from the room of the deceased.
  • Bereaved women sit on the floor on special mats or mattresses.
  • A week before the funeral people arrive to pay their condolences.

The Funeral

  • The day before the actual funeral, the corpse is brought home before the sun goes down and lain in the bedroom.
  • A vigil takes place throughout the night till morning. This is a time for friends and family to encourage and comfort the bereaved.
  • A ritual killing of a cow is sometimes made as a blood sacrifice to appease the ancestors and so avoid further misfortune.
  • The hide of the slaughtered animal is used to cover the corpse as a blanket.
  • The funeral takes place early in the morning, as the sorcerers are still sleeping and are not looking for corpses to use for their evil purposes.
  • The immediate family of the deceased may not take any vocal part in the funeral, and together, must stand apart.
  • Some of the deceased’s special belongings are placed in the grave next to him.
  • After the funeral the party of mourners return to the family home, where they partake of the funeral meal, singing, dancing and drumming ensues.
  • Before entering the gate of the home they take part in a cleansing ritual to wash off the dust of the graveyard.

Mourning

  • Strict mourning is enforced for at least a week after the funeral.
  • The bereaved stay at home, and there is no socialising or sexual activity.
  • The grieving family wears black clothes, or a black sash attached to their clothes.
  • Many shave their heads at this time, shaving means death, and regrowth means the strengthening of life.
  • No eating utensils, clothes, or furniture used by the deceased may be used at this time.
  • Blankets, clothes, and bedding are washed and put away for a year. It is then burned, or given away to family.
  • Seven days after the funeral, the family members undergo a washing and cleansing ceremony to get rid of any bad luck that may be clinging to them. A ritual killing also takes place.
  • A widow must remain in mourning for a year.

The funerals are community affairs, in which all the people feel and share the grief of the bereaved.

11 different cultures. 11 different Burial rituals in South Africa

South Africa is a multicultural country consisting of 11 different cultures. Each of these brings its own vibrancy and diversity, which explains why the country is aptly named ‘The Rainbow Nation’.

Not only in their culture, but in their religious beliefs as well, do we find that each group approaches death and burial rituals in South Africa differently. All have one thing in common – to provide the dead with a smooth transition to the next life.

Let us look at some of the unique ways the different races celebrate death and burials –

The Zulus – they believe that bad luck is caused by the anger of their ancestors, so they need to appease them at all costs. Their funerals are usually on a Sunday. If burial isn’t done the traditional way, the deceased is more than likely to become a wandering spirit. The deceased’s personal belongings like a blanket, cup and plate are buried with them to help them on their journey, and an animal is slaughtered as a ritual.

The Xhosas – they like the family to return the dead to their homeland for the funeral. They believe that people do not die, but are just elevated to a higher realm. Here they become an ancestor, where they can watch over the living without being seen themselves. Their funerals are on a Saturday and can take the whole day, with speeches, singing, drumming and dancing. Eating is also an elaborate affair with the ritual killing of a cow playing an important part.

The Jewish Culture – the Jews bury their dead as soon after death as possible. After the burial there is a 7 day period of mourning at home, called the period of Shiva. During Shiva, friends and family bring Kosher food, condolences and prayers. Mourners must eat a hard-boiled egg or something round, to illustrate the circle of life. All normal activities are suspended so that people can fully concentrate on their grief.

The Hindus – there are Hindus who bury their dead, but most cremate the body. They collect the ashes, and on the fourth day, they allow the ashes to be dispersed over a sacred area of water or other place of importance to the deceased person. Burials and the dispersing of ashes take place 24 hours of death.

The Christians – there is no direct command regarding burial or anything in the Bible which speaks out against cremation. Burial is the general pattern according to Scripture, and Christians, if at all possible, should practice burial. Of course there will be reasons that make burial unwise. Christians burials often follow the example of Christ which gives them the assurance that burial is the first choice. Burial is symbolised by death and resurrection.

The Solution to Rising Costs of Burials

Burial Rituals in South Africa are expensive affairs, especially traditional black South African funerals. Most people in these black communities don’t believe in going the cheap route. They join burial societies so that they can honour old traditions and be buried among the ancestors at their place of birth.

Burials put huge economic pressure on families and even the poorest pay money to a burial society to ensure a decent payout for funeral costs in the future.

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