Xhosa Umkhapho Funeral Ritual Still Observed Today

The Xhosa Umkhapho Funeral ritual is still a part of the Xhosa tradition practised in modern times.

Xhosa culture runs deep even to this day. Many rituals and ceremonies are still practised in parts.

The urbanised Xhosa is, however, discarding them in favour of a more European way of life.

Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, requested that certain Xhosa funeral traditions be brought into his funeral on his death. Amongst other elements, his casket was draped in a lion skin and an ox was slaughtered in his honour.

Umkhapho Rituals Stave off Trouble and Ease the Passing Into the Spiritual World

Umkhapho Funeral RitualEven today, the Xhosa people recognise the presence of ancestral spirits and call upon them for guidance.

When someone dies away from home, rituals are performed for the return of the soul to the ancestral home. It is only when the soul is at home that spiritual harmony can be achieved.

A senior person is elected to perform the rituals needed to appeal to the spirit to return. The ritual may even include talking to the mortal remains, indicating that the return journey of the soul has started.

If this ‘returning-home’ ritual isn’t performed, the family can expect trouble and ill winds to blow.

Lines of Communication are Kept Alive after Death

Death to the Xhosas doesn’t mean the end because the soul lives on. Rain around the time of the funeral is a good sign too; it foretells that the spiritual world, as well as the heavens, are welcoming the dead.

The spirits of the dead have communication with the living.  With the Umkhapho ritual, those who have died can take their place as respected ancestors of the tribe.

The umkhapho ritual is performed to accompany the deceased to the land of the ancestors. The whole purpose of umkhapho is to ensure that the bonds between the dead person and the grieving family are kept alive.

In the first 12 months, the bereaved are expected to conform to cultural norms which have been set for bereavement. Family members shave their heads, which is a sign that they are in mourning of the deceased. A cow or a goat is slaughtered. Traditionally the throat of the animal is slit.

A Smooth Transition into the Afterlife

The slaughtering ritual is performed to help the spirit of the deceased move smoothly into the afterlife. The choice of animal is also important because it determines the importance of the person.

The meat isn’t spiced or salted, and it needs to be consumed before other foods can be eaten. Herbs are also used to cleanse the family of the deceased and to summon protection for them.

In a year’s time, this ritual is repeated. The entire burial process is important, and if a step is missed, a ceremony is held to appease the ancestors.

When the mourning period is over, ‘ukubuyisa’ is declared, this means that an important member of the family can be brought back into the family as a guiding ancestor.

The Xhosa person is then buried with their prized belongings. Details are also revealed about how the family will observe the mourning period.

Some families choose to wear black for the entire time, after which the clothes are symbolically burnt, signifying the end of the mourning period.

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