Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Death and Burial Practices in Contemporary Zulu Culture

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Death and Burial Practices in Contemporary Zulu Culture

Article excerpt

Customs and rituals vary between cultures and between religious affiliations within any community. Human burial practices are a manifestation of the human desire to demonstrate respect for the dead. Burials are an attempt to bring closure to the deceased's family and friends, thus lessening the pain. Christian burials observe the ecclesiastical rites of burying the deceased under the ground. Similarly, most Africans, especially the Zulu people of South Africa, believe that burying their loved ones in the grave is the most respectful practice and a gateway to the ancestors. This article looks at the burial practices and beliefs of the Zulu people. More broadly, it examines the way of life of the Zulus, and their philosophies with regard to grief, mourning and the rituals of death in relation to the two chief practices of inhumation and cremation. The practice of cremation, which is becoming an option for some Zulu people, will be explored and analysed. The article argues that, among most Zulu, inhumation, or burial, is the preferred method of paying last respects to the deceased.

Key Words: Zulu spirituality; Shades; ancestral spirits; Christianity; cemeteries; Zulu burial customs; Xhosa burial customs; Inhumation, cremation; South Africa; Durban burials.

Difficult Choices

Africans in South Africa are faced with difficult ideological and lifestyle choices. Educated and enlightened Africans emphasise the fact that culture is dynamic, but in adopting Western values, in the name of civilisation, modernity, progress and development, they are also - at the same time - alienating themselves from their traditional norms and values.

Western culture continues to play a significant role in influencing African burial systems. Modern ways of burial are now the norm and, especially in the towns and cities, traditional practices such as spitting on the grave, burying the personal belongings of the dead person, slaughtering an animal to cover the body of the deceased, and throwing sand over it, are rejected as 'primitive'. There has thus been a transition from the traditional burial to the western funeral practice.

The growth of the population and the resulting scarcity, in and around the cities, of unused land for burial grounds, have also influenced burial practices. In contrast to rural burials, urban burials involve the coordination of many different agencies: the local authorities and the bureaucracy of the urban system, the clergy, the coroner, and the florist. Funeral parlours are 'big business' and their efficient facilities often favour crematoria over cemetery burial. The cost of funerals has escalated to such an extent that the poor can no longer afford them.

According to traditional thought, such funerals demonstrate a lack of respect for the dead person, as in this modern burial system people are forced to pay their respects at the funeral firm instead of at the home of the deceased person, and the significance of participating at the burial of loved ones is lost. Sometimes, an excavator is used to fill the grave with earth, whereas traditionally graves are filled in by people who attend the burial. These people may be close friends, family members and the community at large. Everything adds to the cost, with the contemporary urban funeral being characterised by a lavish coffin, which is ideally followed to the graveyard by the entourage in expensive cars.

In traditional belief, to die is to go back home where you belong, thus Zulu people use the words ukugoduka, ukuya kobabamkhulu, ukudlula, ukuya kwelamathongo. These words imply that when one dies one rejoins relatives and friends who have gone before. When departing this world, one needs to return home with respect, dignity and a proper burial. Traditionally, respectable Zulu people were buried at home, behind or at the side of their family huts, while the head of the family was buried at the top of the cattle kraal. Cemetery burials came about only through interventions by missionaries in the nineteenth century. …

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