Academic journal article Africa

Christianity and the Proliferation of Ancestors: Changes in Hierarchy and Mortuary Ritual in the Cameroon Grassfields

Academic journal article Africa

Christianity and the Proliferation of Ancestors: Changes in Hierarchy and Mortuary Ritual in the Cameroon Grassfields

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

During the twentieth century, the 'death celebration' became arguably the most important cultural event throughout much of the Western Grassfields of Cameroon. The growth of this ritual festival occurred in the context of major political, economic and religious changes in the Grassfields. This article will focus on how religious changes, particularly the growth of Christianity, contributed to the rise of this event and how it has prompted significant changes in notions and practices concerning the pollution of death, personhood, burial rites and the ancestors. In the traditional hierarchical structure of Grassfields society, only certain titled individuals and chiefs were believed to live on after death and become ancestors. This was reflected in burial rituals. Individuals who became ancestors were buried in family compounds while 'unimportant' people were frequently disposed of in the 'bush', streams or hurriedly given unmarked burials. Christianity, because of its stress on individual personhood and its message of an afterlife for everyone, became an attractive alternative to established beliefs and practices, especially for young adults, women and those without titles, who were the most disenfranchised in the traditional system. With Christianity, burial rites became standardized and were extended to virtually everyone. Christianity also caused declines in notions of death 'pollution' and in beliefs about 'bad deaths'. Because of continued beliefs in the power of ancestors, the egalitarian notions of personhood stimulated by Christianity have ironically created a 'proliferation' of ancestors for whom delayed mortuary rites such as 'death celebrations' are owed.

RESUME

Au cours du vingtieme siecle, la << celebration de la mort >> est sans doute devenue la manifestation culturelle la plus importante dans une grande partie de la region des Western Grassfields du Cameroun. Ce festival rituel s'est developpe dans un contexte de changements politiques, economiques et religieux majeurs dans la region des Grassfields. Cet article s'interesse a la facon dont les changements religieux, notamment la montee de la chretiente, ont contribue a l'essor de cette manifestation et la maniere dont celle-ci a entraine des changements sensibles dans les notions et les pratiques concemant la pollution de la mort, la personne, les rites funeraires et les ancetres. Dans la structure hierarchique traditionnelle de la societe des Grassfields, seuls certains chefs et personnes titrees etaient censes survivre apres la mort et devenir des ancetres. Cette croyance se refletait dans les rituels funeraires. Tandis que ceux qui devenaient des ancetres etaient inhumes dans des enclos familiaux, les personnes << sans importance >> etaient frequemment jetees dans la << brousse >> ou les cours d'eau, ou enterrees a la hate dans une tombe anonyme. La chretiente, de par l'importance qu'elle accorde a l'individu et son message d'une vie apres la mort pour tous, est devenue une alternative seduisante aux croyances et pratiques etablies, notamment chez les jeunes adultes, les femmes et les sans titres, ceux que le systeme traditionnel privar le plus de droits. Avec la chretiente, les rites funeraires se sont normalises et etendus a tout le monde ou presque. La chretiente a egalement entraine le declin des notions de << pollution >> de la mort et des croyances concemant les << mauvaises morts >>. Avec la subsistance des croyances dans le pouvoir des ancetres, les notions egalitaires de la personne stimulees par la chretiente ont paradoxalement cree une << proliferation >> d'ancetres auxquels sont dus des rituels funeraires etendus sur la duree, tels que << celebrations de la mort >>.

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Dry season in the Cameroon Grassfields resounds with the sights, smells and sounds of numerous 'death celebrations' held to commemorate family members who have died, often years before. …

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