Death & Funerals in Xhosa Culture

Funerals: Xhosa Culture (IsiXhosa)

Funerals – Introduction

The death of a loved one is always a significant transition in one’s life. When someone is dead, no one rejoices. According to African culture, a person’s life after death continues in another domain. In ancient times the burial of the dead was done in a day or two to avoid decomposition of the body as there were no mortuaries at that time. Due to changing times, the deceased body is taken to the morgue. It will stay for several days while the family is busy preparing for the burial regardless of where and how the death happened (home, hospital, or by accident).

 Below is the funeral process:

1. Death Announcement (Umbiko)

When there is a death in one’s family, it is the responsibility of the deceased’s family to announce the death to the extended family, relatives, and the community so that they can support them during their time of grief. An elderly male member of the family who is wise in handling sensitive matters like this will be appointed as there will be different emotions involved. This person will approach some older men in the family, like uncles and grandfathers, and deliver the news. In Xhosa culture, there is a saying that “indoda ayikhali” (man, don’t shed tears or cry). Even though losing a loved one is not easy, they will find a way to accept it. The authority to deliver the news to the female members and the children lies on their husbands. Women are known as soft-hearted individuals with empathy. Such sad news is not readily accepted. Depending on the suddenness and cause of death, the emotional shock may vary from mild to acute physical manifestation. Close neighbours will also be alerted about this, as they will inform most community members about this dark cloud. One of the men will be appointed to deliver the news to the chief, who will take the responsibility to announce the death to the community at large. A church bell will ring continuously at different intervals about seven times. The ringing bell makes the whole village aware that death has befallen. 

In the olden days, they sent a telegram to family members who worked and stayed far from home. With the advanced technology and introduction of mobile phones, this announcement is now made within 

minutes. The funeral period typically lasts about 13 days, and the burial will be on the 14th day. The number of days of mourning differ, depending on the family. 

2. Gathering (Ukuvela)

During this mourning period, the deceased’s body will be placed in the mortuary until a day before the burial. Neighbours and the elders in the community will visit the deceased’s home to cry/mourn/wail with the family. They will support the mourning family by helping with house chores, cooking, attending to guests, and contributing money, food, firewood, and fetching water from the river. If the head of the family dies, his widow and some of the aunts will be expected to sit in a secluded house on the grass mat and cover themselves with a blanket. The mourning widow is not “expected” to talk much nor raise a voice during this time. This “quiet time” is the time to mourn her husband “respectfully.” One of the trusted family members will look after everything needed by those who have come to pay their condolences during this time. During this gathering, the elderly person, usually one of the uncles, will guide the customs to be performed during this period. Specific criteria are followed depending on who has passed on and how they died.

3. Prayers (Imithandazo)

It is a common practice to hold prayers when a person is deceased. Prayer is a way of comforting the family. Prayer reminds the family that it is not the end. It helps the family accept that death is not an altogether sad thing. Prayer reminds them that our life on earth is temporary; there is a final place of rest for all of us. When people pay their respect to the mourning family throughout the day, they can say prayers. These prayer sessions will only end a day after the burial.

4. The gravediggers (Abombi)

In some of the Xhosa tribes, especially the Bomvana’s – traditional beliefs still apply. If a family member passes in the morning, the burial will be held the following day at the homestead. Bomvana’s do not take their deceased to a mortuary. Young men in the community will assist the family in digging the grave. Gravedigging typically happens in the early hours of the morning on the day of the burial.

Mortuary: Most deceased people these days are taken to the mortuary. In that instance, gravediggers will dig the grave at least four days before burial. A goat or a sheep will be slaughtered, cooked, and served to the gravediggers to show gratitude for assisting the family. Most families bury their loved ones at the family burial plots in their homesteads. 

5. Opening of the coffin (Ukuvulwa kwebhokisi)

When the time comes for the corpse to be brought home – an elder member (men only) who is part of the lineage and a custodian will be appointed. This elderly man will lead a designated group of men who will bring the deceased to their home first before taking them to the final resting place. The designated person who goes to fetch the deceased is the one who hands over the coffin to the family. When the deceased body is taken from the mortuary, the designated person will speak to the dead as if speaking to the living person and inform him that they have come to fetch him back home. He will continue talking to him on arriving at his home, informing him that they have now reached his home and will prepare his body to be buried in his last place the following morning, etc.  Bringing the deceased home is very important in the Xhosa culture as it is believed to bring peace to the departed. Bringing the deceased home is called ukuThetha. This is a way of thanking the spirit for continuing his journey smoothly and as a way of communicating to him that he has now arrived at his home.

6. Viewing of the corpse (Ukubona umfi)

Night Vigil (Ingqungquthela or umlindelo)
The community members decide whether to have a wake (ingqungquthela or umlindelo) to celebrate the deceased’s life before the burial. The wake is only for church members. Members of the church, including the priest, family, and community members, attend funeral/wake as it will be the last church service to send the deceased home. The ceremony normally starts in the evening and continues throughout the night until the early hours of the morning. The vigil is usually done on a Friday, a night before the burial. 

7.  Burial (Umngcwabo)

The deceased is afforded a peaceful journey. On the day of the burial, the community members will gather at the deceased’s homestead to pay their last respect. Some Xhosa families perform traditional rituals before the burial – these burials will be ukuThetha and Umkhapho. The deceased will be buried in the garden of the same homestead. It is believed that he will be the guiding ancestor looking over and protecting the family as he will be near to overseeing all their needs.

    1. Shaving the head: Shaving is done only by the close relatives (children and uncles of the family) as a sign of mourning their loved ones. 
    2. For a twin: Twins are believed to have a strong bond with each other. To help the surviving twin to cope with the loss, on the day of the burial, the surviving twin will first enter the grave before the burial takes place for a short period and lies on the spot where the deceased will be laid as it is believed that the twins have a sacred connection.
    3. Death by accident: In this instance, the deceased’s body is taken from the mortuary on the same day of the burial. The coffin will not be taken into the yard or homestead as it is considered as bad luck. The family elders will lead the congregation to the burial site, usually in the homestead garden. A small opening will be cut through the garden fence to allow the passing of the coffin to the burial ground. This burial will take place early in the morning before the church service commences.
    4. Umkhapho: On burial day– a ritual called Umkhapho (sending home or accompanying) will be performed where an ox or goat is slaughtered in the early morning hours. Choosing between slaughtering an ox or goat depends on affordability and the person’s importance in the family. This meat is cooked by men with salt and water only and eaten outside the homestead before any other meals are consumed.  It is a Xhosa belief that even though the person may be dead, his spirit lives on and continue to live in another realm.
    5. Thanking and dispersing (Imibulelo)
    6. During the funeral, some family members, friends, and relatives will talk about the deceased‘s life and celebrate it, remembering the good about the deceased. In Xhosa culture, it is not permitted to speak badly of the dead even if the deceased lived their life as a bad person. After everybody has spoken good about the deceased, a family member, usually an uncle, will make a speech thanking the community and every person who supported the family during the funeral.  Then the community will disperse, leaving only the close relatives to discuss how the funeral was handled and what was portrayed during that period, the good or the bad.

8. Mourning period – (Ukuzila)

When the funeral is over, and only the family members are left, a meeting relating to what will happen henceforth will be held. This meeting will involve elders of the family (both men and women) to mark the end of the mourning period. During this meeting, the widow will receive various instructions on how to “conduct” herself while mourning her husband. The widow will be told how to dress (usually she dresses in black clothes from head to toe), what food to eat, daily routine activities, and how long she will abstain from sex (ukuzila).  According to the Xhosa tradition and custom, the deceased’s wife will abstain for a year. Her children will shave their heads and refrain from attending festivals, social gatherings, and parties as a sign of mourning and respect to their father. The whole family and close family members will wear a black button covered with a black cloth daily regardless of what they are wearing. The way they carry themselves should reflect those in mourning, as the community will know that they are mourning.

At the end of the mourning period, a ceremony called ukukhula izila (taking off the mourning clothes) will be held where the widow will be allowed to change from wearing black clothes and go back to her usual way of dressing, the bereaved family members will bring back the black buttons they wore during the mourning period. All the mourning clothes that the widow wore and the black buttons will be burnt. A goat is slaughtered to mark the end of mourning and abstaining from sex.

Death is part of our lives that happens daily. Even though it is like that, no one gets used to it. It always comes as a shock and is said to come “like a thief in the night,” as no one knows when it might occur. A lot has changed in how death and burials are conducted, but only one thing remains: every deceased body will eventually be buried under the ground, bringing dust to dust. When one dies, traditional rites and rituals are performed. Those transitions mark important events in our lives.