Burial customs and rituals in Zimbabwe

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THE journey to the world of the dead has many twist and turns.
According to Zimbabwean traditions, if the correct funeral rites are not observed, the deceased may come back to trouble the living relatives. Usually an animal is killed in ritual, although this also serves the practical purpose of providing food for the many mourners at the funeral.
Personal belongings such as the tools of the trade, if one was a witchdoctor or any other profession, are often buried with the deceased to assist on the journey.
Various other rituals follow the funeral itself. Some kill an ox at the burial to accompany the deceased.
Others kill another animal some time after the funeral — kurova guva (three months to two years and even longer is the period observed).
In Zimbabwe, they slay an ox or cow —‘the returning ox’—, because the beast accompanies the deceased back home to his or her family and enables the deceased to act as a protecting ancestor.
The ‘home-bringing’ rite is also a common African ceremony.
Only when a deceased person’s surviving relatives have gone and there is no one left to remember him or her, can the person be said to have really ‘died’.
At that point the deceased passes into the ‘graveyard’ of time, losing individuality and becoming one of the unknown multitudes of immortals.
Many Zimbabwean burial rites begin with the sending away of the departed with a request that they do not bring trouble to the living, and they end with a plea for the strengthening of life on the earth and all that favours it.
Most Zimbabweans mourn their dead and celebrate life in all its abundance.
Funerals are a time for the community to be in solidarity and to regain its identity.
In some communities, this may include dancing and merriment for all but the immediate family, thus limiting or even denying the destructive powers of death and providing the deceased with ‘light feet’ for the journey to the other world.
Ancient customs are adapted in many Zimbabwean communities.
When someone, especially an adult, has died in a house, especially among the BaTonga, all the windows are smeared with ash, all pictures in the house, are turned around and all mirrors and televisions and any other reflective objects are covered.
The beds are removed from the deceased’s room, and the bereaved women sit on the floor, usually on a reed mat.
A night vigil or wake then takes place, often lasting until the morning.
The night vigil is a time for a musical night to comfort and encourage the bereaved.
A ritual killing of a cow/ox is sometimes made for the ancestors, as it is believed that blood must be shed at this time to avoid further misfortune.
Some people use the hide of the slaughtered beast to cover the corpse or place it on top of the coffin as a ‘blanket’ for the deceased.
Traditionally, the funeral takes place in the early morning (often before sunrise) and not late in the afternoon, as it is believed that witches move around in the afternoons looking for corpses to use for their evil purposes. Because witches are believed to be asleep in the morning or afternoon, this is a good time to bury the dead.
In some communities, children and unmarried adults are not allowed to attend the funeral.
During the burial itself, the immediate family of the deceased is expected to stay together on one side of the grave at a designated place.
They are forbidden to speak or take any vocal part in the funeral proceedings.
It is customary to place the deceased’s personal effects, including eating utensils, walking sticks, blankets and other useful items, in the grave.
After the funeral the people are invited to the deceased’s home for the funeral meal.
Many people follow a cleansing ritual at the gate of the house, where everyone must wash off the dust of the graveyard before entering the homestead.
Sometimes pieces of cut aloe are placed in the water, and this water is believed to remove bad luck. Churches that use ‘holy water’ sprinkle people to cleanse them of impurity at this time.
Because life is said to be concentrated in the hair, the removal of hair symbolises death, and its growing again indicates the strengthening of life.
People in physical contact with a corpse are often regarded as unclean. The things belonging to the deceased should not be used at this time, such as the eating utensils or the chair the deceased used.
Blankets and anything else in contact with the deceased are all washed. The clothes of the deceased are wrapped up in a bundle and put away for a year or until the extended period of mourning has ended, after which they are distributed to family members or destroyed by burning.
After a certain period of time, the house and the family must be cleansed kuchenurwa from bad luck, from uncleanness and ‘darkness’.
However, a practice that seems to be disappearing from Zimbabwean urban areas is the home-bringing ritual, although it is still observed in some communities.
A month or two after the funeral, the grieving family slaughters a beast and then goes to the graveyard.
They speak to the ancestors to allow the deceased to return home to rest. It is believed that at the grave the spirits are hovering above the earth and are restless until they are brought home—an extremely dangerous situation for the family.
The family members take some earth from the grave and put it in a bottle.
They proceed home with the assurance that the deceased relative is accompanying them to look after the family as an ancestor.
Zimbabwean funerals are a community affair in which the whole community feels the grief of the bereaved and shares in it.
The purpose of the activities preceding the funeral is to comfort, encourage and heal those who are hurting.

3 COMMENTS

  1. What about the belief that no dead man casts a shadow when zimbabwean. Or the one that as long as you are zimbabwean and was fed and weaned by your biological mother you are definite to come back as a ngozi event in the lives of the murderer or inciter of genocide. Your exploration of the one event that has the most nunerous and wide spanning zvirango is poignant but shallow. Its a topic which can best be narrated in a shona epic action drama FICTION novel.

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