Evolving funeral rites of the Shona


DURING a recent meeting of experts from the region on the 2003 Convenction Safeguarding and Promoting Intangible Cultural Heritage, I had raging debate with a colleague from Swaziland on the purpose of documenting such heritage.
Apart from ethical issues around documenting and publicising cultural secrets and intellectual property, we are also worried about the danger of freezing culture and creating museums of living communities.
How far should a cultural practice be allowed to evolve and at what rate?
To illustrate the dilemma I have looked at evolving funeral rites among the Shona communities (whatever this means!).
I have relied on a hundred-year-old account of a Shona funeral and my recent personal experiences.
According to the old account a terminally ill patient was taken to an isolated hut in the periphery of the homestead to be nursed by his wife and close relations until he had breathed his last.
The body was at once placed on right side and legs folded upwards and arms folded with hands resting below chin.
No cries or wailing was allowed until this kupeta was completed.
The nursing party then left the hut and in silence touched hands, kubata maoko, with those who would have been waiting outside.
It was only after this that women broke into loud wailing.
Today, the terminally ill are kept in hospital or in a room or hut accessible to the public.
Immediate kupeta now involves hands and closing the eyelids only.
More detailed work is left to the undertakers.
In hospitals, many find out about the fate of their loved ones during visiting time. Drawn curtains or patient file on nurses’ station desk, boldly endorsed, DECEASED.
Do we accept these changes as part of cultural evolution?
In the old account widows and deceased’s female relations, after the initial wailing, would put ashes on their heads.
The corpse was then carried back to the hut of the deceased through the main entrance to the homestead.
The body would then be washed and anointed in oil before being shrouded ready for burial.
Relatives and friends then enter the hut with their offerings and a farewell line for example, “Ndakuwoneka hama yangu, ndini Jairosi, enda zvakanaka.”
Offerings depended on status of deceased and could include ox or goat or fowls or bracelets.
Today someone will move around the village collecting portions of maize meal.
In old times appearance of bvuri, shadow across floor of hut on to opposite wall, was a sign of a grievance that had to be attended to urgently.
Usually this had to do with the absence of a sahwira or presence of an unwanted individual.
This had to be addressed.
If the sahwira could not make it on time, a relation of sahwira could be used as proxy.
Growing up we heard about bvuri.
Today a death grievance usually manifests itself in the form of a coffin that cannot fit through the hut entrance.
Grave selection was another important element of the funeral ritual.
Usually graves were located on rocky hills or anthills.
Gravesite location, kutema rukawo was done by mukwasha or muzukuru.
It involved delivering one hoe blow dig at the chosen site.
Today the act of kutema rukawo is still prevalent in the village, though it is done by someone of fatherly lineage to the deceased.
In some instances, it involves more than one hoe blow as the executor seeks to make an outline of the grave.
Where burial was delayed, measures were taken to deal with decomposition. Usually zumbani shrubs were used to counteract unpleasant smells.
Today this has become a grey area.
I have an experience where I offended some relations after I sprayed air freshener in the hut with the corpse.
Burial process started with carrying of the corpse on a mutararo, stretcher of poles and bark.
The body and procession left the homestead through a new entrance.
It was taboo to use the main entrance that would have been used by the corpse to enter the homestead.
The procession is punctuated, by stops, lamentations and singing.
Popular songs included ‘Ndashaya kwekuenda’ and ‘Kwauya kufa’.
Firing of guns, gidi, to drive away evil spirits was a common feature in old burials. Today proceedings are determined by customs and practices of churches and funeral companies.
Occasionally, varoora can seek recognition through their jest acts.
Throughout the funeral procession and burial, children are kept in closed in huts. They must not see the funeral process.
This is a source of conflict between tradition and church today.
Many churches are happy to let children bereave by taking part in the burial process.
My own chief is fighting a losing battle over this matter.
On arrival at the gravesite, singing and lamentations stop.
The undertaker and his assistants place the corpse in the grave lying on right side, head pointing north and face to the west.
The deceased’s favourite clothes and personal adornments are placed below the head.
As a general rule, all metal ornaments are removed as they were not accepted as burial goods.
The corpse would be shrouded in white or blue calico.
Once the body was placed in its final resting position, relatives and friends were invited to throw earth flings on the corpse.
This act, kurasa rushambwa, was meant to fling away evil and misfortune.
The grave was then filled with earth around beautifully constructed stonework.
A small hole is left open in the stonework.
All mourners were expected to wash their bodies in a nearby stream.
The undertaker had to take a special ritual bath.
The mantra was dust of death must not be taken back to the homestead.
Burial was immediately followed by the farewell ceremony, kuwoneka, nheyedzo that involved slaughtering of an ox or goat, depending on the deceased’s status. Body washing has today given way to hand washing.
The kuwoneka ceremony has disappeared though some still have the nheyedzo element in the form of an ox provided by a son or mukuwasha of the deceased.
In many instances, the mombe yenheyedzo is no longer offered as such and is slaughtered as ordinary relish.
This is done in order to offend the majority Christian faithfuls.
A few days after kuwoneka ceremony, beer was brewed by female relations of the deceased and visits made to a prophet bone thrower, n’anga yehakata, kunoshopera.
Findings from kushopera constituted the subsequent beer drinking discussion.
Beer or mhanga from this brew was taken to grave site and poured through the opening before the hole was sealed with clay, kunama guva.
Today these acts have given way to nyaradzo with Christian baptism.
The question I am left pondering is; what constitutes our cultural funeral practice, the practice of hundred years ago or today’s practice?


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