Death & Funerals in Bemba Culture

Funerals: Bemba Culture

 The Bembas, like most of the tribes across Zambia, attach great importance to a dead person. As one can see, among the tribes of Zambia, they usually name the children being born after a person who has passed on to return the spirit of the man or a person to in their family. It is hilariously that when a person dies, even if he/she was a horrible person, only good things are spoken about. It is deemed taboo to speak ill of the dead.

Common belief:  It is deemed taboo to speak ill of the dead.

The Bembas believe that every person who comes to this earth is good; circumstances change a person; therefore, only the good things are supposed to be remembered. Even if they were unkind, only good things are spoken about. Apart from that, they would not like the spirits of the dead to haunt them (it remains a myth). 

Death is always suspicious among the Bembas. Death-related suspicion is not unique to the Bemba Culture. Across all the tribes of Zambia and most African Cultures, no one is believed to die of a natural cause or sickness. It is mostly believed that one was bewitched; hence witchhunt is common among the Bembas and also across most tribes in Zambia. It is considered a normal or natural death unless one grows noticeably old and dies.

The coming of Christianity (Missionaries) has altered how the Bembas mourn and conduct their funerals. When the Missionaries came to preach the gospel and build missions in the Bembaland, most of the beliefs, which included the practices that accompanied mourning, were considered pagan and not in line with the Gospel of Christ and were done away with, for example:

1) Hair shaving-Shaving off of the hair for all the close relatives of the deceased after burial was stopped, though some still practice it. 

2) Brothers marrying the late brother’s widow (ukupyana mukafwilwa – taking over the widow) was discouraged and mostly completely done away with.

Below are the activities and steps that follow when there is a bereavement in a family:

  1. Ukubila Imbila ya Cililo – Funeral Announcement

When a person dies, the bereaved family wails loudly, and the neighbours will hear and flock to the house where the weeping is coming from and find out what has happened. They all start weeping together with the family. Then the neighbours will start spreading the news around other neighbours.

The village Head is informed, and as earlier stated in the previous write-ups, a funeral is a community affair among the Bemba Culture. The elders of the bereaved family will send able-bodied men who can ride bicycles to go to the faraway villages to inform the relatives about the funeral. Informing the relatives is done promptly because a body cannot stay for more than four days in the house without stinking due to the lack of mortuaries in the villages. The minimum time the body can stay in the house is two days; hence they ensure every relative who is supposed to be present at the funeral is informed urgently. 

The next to be informed is the Priest, who will conduct the funeral.

In the Urban areas, it is easier to keep the body for a longer time and wait for people to travel, especially those coming from the village who are heads of families, such as uncles, aunties, and grandparents, to be present at the funeral. Burial cannot take place without the elders of the family being present. The procedure for the funeral announcement is the same as the village setting, except that in the urban areas, it is easier to make announcements because of easy transportation systems. 

The Priest or pastor who will conduct the funeral is informed. In urban areas, they can wait long for relatives to arrive because bodies are kept in the mortuary and only taken to the Imanda  (graveyard) on the burial day. 

However, it should be noted that funerals take very few days among all the Zambian Tribes. Other people who miss the burial and wish to pay the last respects to the deceased just visit the funeral house,??? and some will visit the graveside.

  1. Ukulosha (Mourning)

As soon as it is known among the neighbours and relatives that someone has passed away in a 

certain family, they start gathering, and the women mourn loudly. The men mourn silently, though sometimes they also mourn loudly. The Bemba Culture and almost all tribes in Zambia do not encourage men to mourn; it shows a sign of weakness; they will always say “Umwaume Talila” – Meaning a Man does not cry or mourn”. 

The neighbours will help the bereaved family clear the living room and put mats 

and mattresses where the mourners will sit during the mourning period before burial, and the chairs are put outside. Until burial, everyone will sit and sleep in the living room (bereaved family, relatives, and neighbours). A tent is put up in the urban area where the mourners can sit, especially the men. They just make a bonfire in the village and gather around it, and men sleep outside.

People pour in at the deceased’s home to mourn with the bereaved family. Neighbours are very active in assisting the family. The clans that play Abanunungwe (cousinship) help alleviate the sorrow at the funeral by cracking jokes while working. These cousin clans work hard to ensure everything goes on well.

Duties are shared among distant relatives, neighbours, well-wishers, and church groups (close relatives are not allowed to work during mourning). Meals are prepared in makeshift open kitchens on charcoal and firewood. Neighbours bring plates and large pots to make meals. In the village, people bring firewood, fetch water, bring utensils and foodstuffs. It is easier to plan; people donate money and then assign people to buy the needed stuff. Also, most people in urban areas have funeral policies that help with finances during funerals.

Throughout the day, people pass through to mourn, encouraging the bereaved family through the word of God. In the evening, a Priest or Pastor, or Deacon will go through to the house to conduct prayers (Amapepo). The choir members will sing hymns and prayers almost every day until burial. The singing and praying is ongoing until the people are tired.

  1. A day before the burial

They prepare the body in the village, the Abanungwe (Cousinship Clan), wash the body and dress it. The family buys a white or black material and cut it into pieces for all the family members to wear around their headscarves like a band and men around their elbows on top of their shirts or jackets on the burial day. If they have money, they also buy similar Ifitenge (wrappers for women) to wear on the burial day. In the urban area, they usually wear similar Ifitenges (wrappers). The young men dig the grave (ukwimba ini ndi). The carpenters make the coffin. In the urban areas, such preparations are taken care of by the undertaker.

The women prepare food pre-burial day and finish off on the burial day when everyone has gone to the graveyard. In the urban areas, families who can afford hire caterers. 

  1. Ubushiku bwa Kushika (Burial Day)

(i)  Pakushika (burial)

Burial day is the saddest day; it is the day it dawns on many that their beloved is departed and will not be seen again. Everyone is in a sombre mood. 

If a spouse has passed on, the man or woman is dressed in black. The family members

 wear a black or white cloth (umushingo) around the elbow for men and a band on the heads for women (black or white fabric). The burial program is distributed in urban areas. In the village, a spokesman is chosen who will make announcements. The body is taken to church if it is nearby, but it is far; the Priest will travel to the funeral house and conduct prayers. A procession then ensues to the burial site; people walk in throngs with the choir singing. The coffin is carried on a cart pulled by donkeys or cattle or sometimes on shoulders if the Imanda (burial site) is not far away. In Urban areas, they pay funeral parlours to take care of all the burial arrangements; the family only chooses the graveyard where the deceased will be buried.

More prayers are conducted at the burial site, and speeches by the head of the family and anyone on the program is made. The young men lower the coffin in the grave and cover it with the soil. The women smoothen the Uluputa (grave), and the Priest put a Cross and blesses the grave, and then people return home (with much mourning).

(ii)  Lintu bapwisha ukushika (After  finishing burying)

After the burial, people return to the funeral house, a dish of water is placed at the path that leads to the house, and someone with soap will stand there and ensure everyone washes their hands before reaching the funeral house (this is done in urban areas too).  

The women would have finished cooking and ready to serve as soon the people were seated. People sit in groups of 5 or 10, and food is served to them. Nshima (hard porridge -the staple food) made from maize meal or millet or sorghum mixed with cassava meal is served with relish (Chicken, goat meat, beans, lentils, fish, and vegetables), and the soft drink brew (Munkoyo) is served to the mourners. After the meal, people mingle a bit and return to their homes, and close relatives remain at the funeral house (same procedure in the village and urban areas).

(iii) Imishingo (the personal items of the deceased) and Isambo lya imfwa (Narration how the deceased died)

The close relatives gather in the living room, and the family of the deceased bring out the clothes of the deceased, blankets and suitcases etc (all personal items), this is what is called ‘’Imishingo’’, these items are placed in the centre of the living room on the floor while everyone is seated around.

Then the eldest of the family will call attention to everyone gathered and ask the person who was beside the deceased to narrate what happed and how the person died (this is called Isambo lya mfwa – narration/explanation of how a person died). After finishing the Isambo lya imfwa. Then they share the clothes. Anyone who is willing will pick from the heap what they want. The family will keep one item or two to give to the person who will take over the deceased person’s name. This will be given to the person during another ceremony called Ukupyana, which means to take over.

  1. Ukupyanika (taking over or renaming ceremony)

Ukupyanika is the name of the ceremony of giving the name of the deceased to another member of the family. Ukupyana is the process of naming the person after the deceased or the brother marrying the deceased wife. If a spouse dies, the ceremony takes place after one year. Then the black clothes are taken off the widow or widower. Then they are free to marry if they want. In the olden days, a brother or close relative would take over the brother’s wife. But this has been discontinued since Christianity came to the Bemba land.

During Ukupyana, close relatives are invited. Food is cooked, and the local brew is made (katata and cimpumu) and non-alcoholic drink umunkoyo. This is a min-celebration.

Nowadays, since people are living far from each other, some in urban areas and others in distant villages, the relatives of the deceased will try and hold this ceremony after a week or two after burial. They will take a cassava mealie meal because it is white(deemed pure), throw it on the widow or widower, pronounce blessings, and let them go. But it is important for the widow or widower to observe a minimum of one(1)  year mourning period.

If a brother or sister, or young child has died, the ukupyana will be conducted after a week or two after the burial. They will gather, close relatives throw the cassava mealie meal on the person to take over the name and pronounce blessings.

The death of  a stillborn child (akapopo)

The death of a stillborn (called akapopo) is really a private affair. This is limited to family members only. Sometimes the neighbours are not even told. They only find out because maybe they saw their neighbour was pregnant and there is no baby to show that they have given birth. Most of the time, if a woman gives birth to a stillborn, she is secluded from others until the mourning period is over. The mourning period varies from clan to clan.

Given the above write-up, death in the Bemba Culture is sacred and is treated with utmost importance. This is also a time when one learns who cares about them as the Saying goes, “Icikwanka Bacimona Kumampalanya” –  The one who catches you as you fall will be seen by how they act towards you”. Meaning; One can tell by actions the people who will rally behind them when they are in trouble.


Imfwa Death

Icililo Funeral

KUkubila Incililo Funeral Announcement

Imanda Burial site / Graveyard

Uluputa The grave

Ukupyana Taking over

Ukupyanika Ceremony of taking over

Kapoppo Stillborn baby

Ukushika bury

Ukwimba ini ndi Digging the grave

Abanungwe Cousin Clan

Isambo lya mfwa Narration of how the deceased died

Imishingo Personal items of the deceased

Umushingo White or Black band won around the elbow by men

and won by women around the scarf

Ukulosha Mourning / Weeping

Mukamfwilwa Widow / Widower

Icikwanka The one who catches you

Bacimona Is seen

Kumampalanya Identified

Amapepo Prayers