Funeral traditions in different cultures


 This past Sunday morning, on my way to church, I was listening to the radio. The discussion was a description of what was happening in Qunu, Eastern Cape, the childhood home and now final resting place of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I am including his Xhosa name because it was only when he went to school that he was given the name Nelson by the teacher. All Black African children were given English names when they went to school even though the teacher may not necessarily have been English. The children were told that it was by the English name that they would be known in school. This was due to the strong British influence in South Africa and English was considered superior in every way.  Local culture and traditions were not of any import. And so it was that this great leader came to be known as Nelson Mandela.

But I digress. What I heard on the radio inspired this blog. The young lady reporter was describing what was happening in and around Qunu and where people were allowed or not allowed to go. She described it as very sombre with the local women, wrapped in blankets, not for warmth but respect for the dead, talking softly and walking slowly. She said that this was the culture of the Xhosa people at a funeral. When asked about the other media persons present she said that it was sad that some of them, particularly the foreign media, were not behaving appropriately for a funeral.  She said that some were not dressed properly and others were doing interviews and talking quite loudly. In reply to the question as to whether or not they had been briefed on how to behave at this funeral, her reply was that she did not believe it to be necessary to tell people how to behave at a funeral.

This got me thinking. How many of us know how to behave at the death and funeral of a person from a culture unlike our own or one we have not had the opportunity to experience previously? Surely someone could have briefed the media before they got settled into their task for the day. This could have been verbally or in writing. Then again, maybe, reporters should do their homework. I do not believe that anyone would like to discover that he/she has insulted or upset anyone at this emotional time. A short search of the internet and one will find that death and mourning are very different in the various cultures and people of the world.

In her blog, 11 Fascinating Funeral Traditions from around the World, Kate May describes some of the most interesting and, to some of us bizarre, funeral traditions in different parts of the world. These range from the western culture of having a service in a church, funeral home or even at home; to cremating the body and having the ashes made into beads; having a jazz festival and as far as chopping up the body and leaving the parts on the highest hill for the spirits (and vultures) to remove.  Then there are the cultures which continue with the funeral rituals after 7 days, 40 days, 1 year and even more. In fact, for some, the date of death becomes more important than the date of birth. For Nelson Mandela to be recognised as an ancestor there have to be a number of rituals, performed by various family members and local leaders, over the next two years.

Probably one of the most well-known western type funeral traditions is the Irish wake. “The practice of Waking the dead used to be the custom in most Celtic countries in Europe for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried – this was called a ‘Wake’.  Today it is really only carried out in Ireland but is even losing popularity there. This shows that culture and tradition are often closely entwined and changes gradually take place. This is really clear when one considers that in Christian culture, until 40 years ago one would never consider going to a funeral in anything but black. Nowadays, some even come in denim jeans and T-shirts! Even the music has made great strides. Instead of the slow and mournful there are lively praise songs at many funerals.

In a country like South Africa with such diverse peoples and cultures, this can often be a difficult path to walk for those who are unaccustomed to another’s culture and traditions. With our now Rainbow Nation where people from all groups work and socialise together, we often get invited to family celebrations and services. This can easily result in making mistakes and sometimes upsetting people. I learnt the hard way some years ago when I attended the funeral of a former domestic worker. It is customary for everyone who attends the funeral to make a financial donation and, as I did not know this, I walked right past the basket being held out at the door. I was followed and told that I would be insulting the family if I did not make a donation. Since then, I have always done a bit of homework before attending a funeral or the home where there has been a death in a culture different from my own. Then again it was such a joy to go to a Christian funeral last week which was attended by Muslims, Hindus and aetheists as well. This was due to the both the work and hobbies of the deceased. What was amazing was that everyone took part without any discomfort. It was a truly wonderful celebration of the earthly life of a wonderful man.







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