Death & Funerals in Shona Culture

Shona Death & Funerals

No tribe in the world takes kindly and lightly to death issues, and subsequently, burial/funerals and the Shona are no exception in this regard. They celebrate the birth of a child and mourn the death of a community member and predominantly so because, by their nature and design, Shona families are typically extended and connected.  Several observances, processes, and procedures are followed at funerals, and these differ between families, tribes, villages, and religious affiliations.

Soon after a member of a Shona family dies, the home is prepared to receive family members and friends to gather and mourn along with loved ones. Preparing the house in this context ranges from cleaning up the yard and organizing sitting places for those who will join the family in mourning. It is important to note that the family does these preparations with the help of relatives and close-by neighbours, who are informed before everybody else. This sense of community is reflected throughout the funeral proceedings (which can take up to a week while waiting for close family members who might be staying or working far away to arrive). 

Nightly vigils are held during the days leading up to the burial. At these gatherings, there are usually scripture readings and recollections of good memories of the deceased. The purpose of the proceedings before the actual burial is to comfort and encourage the bereaved family, and most importantly, to gradually prepare them for the reality of seeing the coffin of their loved one being lowered on that final day of burial. These nightly vigils, upon scrutiny, provide an abundance of evidence that the Shona have always known about and practiced counselling during such times.

The family, neighbours, and friends help in whatever capacity as may be deemed necessary; in the making of meals and ensuring that no one goes hungry, kitchen or bathroom supplies, and financially as needed. It is common for the Shona to have friends and family bring tangible goods and foods to add to what the family has provided. As a people with a high sense of community, it will do the Shona culture great injustice, not to mention ROLES & RESPONSIBILITIES of the different people involved during the funeral:

  1. Members of the community- as already stated, they help as and when needed and can also contribute tangible goods like firewood for cooking, bring about small groceries as per the family’s needs. The men are also expected to voluntarily help the male family members with their chores like killing and skinning the animals and cooking the meat.
  2. Varoora: this is Shona name for daughters-in-law. Varoora do not necessarily refer to the deceased’s daughters-in-law. It also refers to all the ladies married into the family, and their role is to LEAD and DIRECT in doing chores such as cooking, preparing tea and meals, dishing for the mourners, and cleaning the yard every morning.
  3. Vakuwasha: this means the sons-in-law and the interpretation is the same as that of the daughters-in-law. The vakuwasha’s roles and responsibilities range from fetching firewood for cooking, killing and skinning the animals to be eaten by mourners after the burial, and erecting tents for people to use as a shade. They are also the ones expected to lead during the digging of the grave, with the help and support of male community members.

 

 After the burial, the church or community sees that the bereaved transition back to everyday life. The emergence and dominance of Christianity have resulted in the rejection of some mourning rituals, and the funeral service has become an opportunity to declare faith in God.

 It is essential, however at this point, to note that a funeral in the Shona culture also depends on the age and societal standing of the deceased; for example, an infant (zero to six months old) and in the event of a traditional healer/doctor:

  1. INFANT: as stated above, an infant is considered between a day old to six months old in the Shona tradition, and their funeral is not conducted the same as that of an older person. When an infant passes on, the burial must be done within 24 hours of its passing, and the proceedings are attended strictly by older women. Digging the grave is traditionally done along a riverbank (not the ordinary village graveyard). The Shona people used a clay pot as a coffin in the burial of an infant child. Unlike in the death of an elderly, there is no community involvement in the proceedings and no cooking at a scale described above.

  2. Traditional Doctor/ Healer: Like other Bantu tribes, a Traditional Doctor is buried in the earliest morning hours before sunrise and dusk in the Shona tradition. They are buried not in a casket but are wrapped in the hide/skin of a cow that will also provide food for the mourners. However, it is worth noting that they are buried at the village graveyard, and another traditional doctor must conduct the proceedings.

  3. Death of a bride before lobola is fully paid: it goes without saying that in the Shona culture, a man or woman is not considered married before the completion of the roora/lobola payments. So in the unfortunate event that the bride-to-be dies at such a time, her family would expect the groom’s family to settle the roora/lobola before burial, failing which the bride’s family might claim their child back to be buried at her parent’s place. However, this would depend on the negotiations between the two families. The groom can be allowed to bury his sweetheart but pay her family in instalments until the price is fully covered: in which case, for some Shona clans, he might even qualify to marry the deceased’s younger sister, especially where the two had a child by the time of death. 

 

Common Traditions

Sahwiras

Sahwira is a Shona word for a close friend, that friend who knows the family’s intimate details and has been there through the highs and lows. Usually, this friend has been a friend of the family for a long time.

The role of this friend, sahwira, is to relieve the stress and pain brought about by the loss of a loved one. They imitate what the deceased used to do or wear in jest and make fun of their immediate relatives. These actions allow mourners to be distracted and even break into laughter for a moment and can be seen as another way of counselling the mourners. 

Chema

Chema is a way that family and friends show their condolences in kind. It is customary for mourners to bring a token of sympathy in monetary form, groceries, kitchen, and bathroom supplies. People offer whatever they can afford or find; some offer their services, such as cooking and serving meals. The size of the gift or the amount provided does not matter. In this case, it is indeed the thought that counts; this is one of the ways that relationships between the deceased’s loved ones and the family and friends are cemented and reaffirmed.

Kubata maoko

It is also customary for those attending the funeral to shake hands, known in Shona as the “kubata maoko,” of the deceased family. Kubata maoko is a show of condolences and social support to the bereaved. It is also used as a sign to reaffirm support and empathy from members of the community.

Kuridza mhere

When a death occurs, a shrill of women crying signals that death has stalked the village. Loud wailing is referred to as kuridza mhere.  On hearing the message, the Shona feel it is a sacred duty to go and express loving sympathy and condolences with the living relatives and friends of the deceased. Therefore, one can say this kind of wailing is to announce to the community that death has occurred amongst them. Showing grief is essential in the Shona culture because it shows neighbourly attachments and empathy for your neighbour’s pains and misfortunes.

Walk around the house.

When the body is brought from the mortuary on the funeral day, the final farewell is performed. Depending on the local or family custom, the corpse is taken straight to the graveyard or for a walk around the house first. One reason for taking it round is the belief that the deceased needs to “say good-bye” to its once place of habitation. Usually, this results in the final wake, where the body spends the last night in the yard before burial in the morning. The wake is also a counselling session by and large.

Kugova nhumbi

Kugova nhumbi is similar to the reading of the will in western culture. Kugova nhumbi is a distribution of the deceased’s belongings. Kugova nhumbi may occur a few weeks or soon after the funeral. If the deceased was a woman, distribution of her belongings was done to her side of the family. Suppose it was a man; his belongings are distributed to family members on his side of the family. If the man leaves behind a wife or several wives, they are also to be “inherited” by a member of his family. The Shona people performed this inheritance through a ritual called “kudarika tsvimbo.” The recently widowed lady has to prove that she did not commit an act of adultery following her husband’s death. If any foul play is suspected, then she has to go through some ritual cleansing first. If there are no disputes, then she has the right to choose from a line-up of her husband’s brothers. She also has the option of giving the responsibility of looking after the family to her eldest son. In other instances, the widow may also opt to go back to live with her family; the choice is hers.

Once the inheritance matters are settled, the funeral is considered complete.

Death at home 

Customarily, when a person dies in the home, elders who were in the deceased’s company during their last hours see that a ritual called Kupeta (folding) is performed. If the dead person’s eyes are still open, they are closed, hands and legs are straightened. The body is put in the correct posture for burial. The body is then washed and anointed, after which it is ceremoniously wrapped in a new cloth or blanket and then laid on a reed sleeping mat or in a coffin. 

Death at a hospital or clinic

If the person passed away at a clinic or hospital, it is a known fact the corpse would have been folded while still there, but what cannot be taken for granted is the ritual washing. Even if the person had already been washed, a known duty with modern-day funeral companies, elders still ensure that washing is done though it may not be the whole body and only the deceased’s face. Not all families do the ritual washing

Kurova Guva

After burial and everybody has gone back to their daily chores, the Shona will gather again after a year of having buried their loved one for what is called, in the Shona language Kurova Guva. Kurova Guva can loosely be translated to mean bringing back home the spirit of the dead person. On the day of this custom, the deceased’s eldest son has to lead some family members into the bush, where he has to cut the branch of a particular tree to be replanted in front of or near the house used by the deceased. The family will then nurture to grow this tree, and it will represent the spirit of the departed member of the family. Note that the cutting of this branch must be done in one sharp sot or cut. However, this is very rare nowadays because of issues like space and some families staying in towns, which becomes impossible.

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