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Xhosa Funeral Rites: What The World Can Expect After Mandela's Death

Saturday, December 7, 2013 - 00:00 -- BY MWANGI GITHAHU
Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel
Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel

Nelson Mandela was a member of the Xhosa tribe which is part of the Nguni people. The Xhosa are proud people who believe in the importance of laws, education, and courtesy.

Xhosa childrens’ lives were shaped by custom, ritual, and taboo.

Once a member of the tribe dies, there are a series of tribal rituals that must be observed by the family (and in the case of Mandela, the nation) throughout this period and during the funeral, although Mandela, a Methodist, will also be given a Christian burial.

According to a blog by an unnamed writer on Xhosa funeral traditions, the first thing that happens when a Xhosa person dies is “the house is emptied of furniture to make space for the extended family who come from all over.

“It is upon the bereaved family to feed the visitors who in turn mourn with them (bezila nathi).”

Ordinarily Xhosa funerals are held on the second Saturday after the death and the body is brought to the house just before the funeral.

On the day of the funeral the entire family and friends of the deceased gather and many people are expected make speeches.

Again on the day of the funeral, or some time soon afterwards, elders go out and buy a cow and slaughter it very early in the morning. The men cook the cow in big pots full of boiling water and they do not add any spice. Then everyone eats the meat outside of the house. Traditionally, all the meat must be eaten before any other food is served.

Next the elders speak to the ancestors and all are expected to be solemn and serious during this time and guests are asked to maintain a respectful silence.

The Xhosa believe that dead people carry messages to the ancestors asking to be remembered and forgiven. The writer of the blog adds, “In this way we send the dead person to their new home, so that they can become a true ancestor. Our prayers help them find the way. This we call, ‘Umkapho’.”

This ceremony is only carried out for men as the Xhosa believe women are born with intuition which means they know how to do this without help.

Next traditional beer, meat, flowers and a white candle are set up in a corner of the house. The beer and the meat are for the ancestors to taste. The burning candle keeps the bad spirits away.

According to the blog writer: “Some of us don’t like children to come to the funerals, because of the bad spirits, because children can see more than the adults can, and they do not want you to be disturbed by what you see. But I think if we speak openly to one another about these things children can deal with them quite well.”

The writer continues, “We must never burn our dead. We must always bring them back to the place they belong to, so that they can be reunited with all the ancestors and sleep in the ground they were taken from.”

“There we put them into the grave. We also put food for them and their walking stick and other things into the grave that they might need.”

On the day after the funeral the Xhosa sprinkle family and guests alike with water and herbs to cleanse them from any ‘shadows’ they may have picked up.

The clan decides together how long ukuzila (mourning) should be. It can be anywhere from six months to a year.

During that time women, particularly wives of the deceased, have to wear black and stay at home. The men usually wear a black button or scarf.

At the end of the mourning period, the women of the family gather round the widow and bring her new clothes. They take her old, black clothes off and burn them. Then they dress her in new colourful clothes on her.”

This ceremony is called, “Khulula izila” (which means take off from mourning.)

Xhosa men do not have this ritual.

After about a year after the death, and sometimes longer than a year later the family then hold an “Umbuyiso” ceremony in which the Xhosa people celebrate the deceased becoming “a real ancestor” who has the power to return to help and protect the bereaved.

The Xhosa believe that the dead at this time are just in hiding (this is what the Xhosa word for funeral means). “They cannot be seen, but they watch over us.”

During this ceremony, the Blogger writes, “We welcome him home. So we slaughter another cow. This time the women prepare the meat with spices in the way the person would have liked. And we eat the meat inside the house and celebrate together that they have come back to us.”