The conception that the spirit or soul does not die, but leaves the body at death and is capable of returning to disturb or harm those left behind, is reflected in the following customs which still exist in South Africa: the body is laid out, that is to say, cleansed, dressed in clean or new clothing and the hair combed and brushed. On the way to the cemetery the body must be carried in such a manner that it cannot see the way back, thus with the feet forward. All traces of the funeral procession are brushed, sprinkled, or wiped out by driving herds of cattle across them. The formula of separation is pronounced over the deceased: ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes and the soul to whom it belongs’. The grave is still often built with a ring-wall and gable to look like a miniature house. The grave is so situated that the deceased can see the break of each new day in the east (the opposite direction for murderers and suicides). Mourning clothes were originally intended to protect the survivors – that is, the community – although nowadays they have almost completely lost this significance and indeed have become rather exceptional; in the cities even mourning bands round the hat or sleeve have fallen into disuse.
The funeral feast used to be a necessity when farms were remote, and meat dishes are still served after a burial, together with ‘burial rice’ (yellow rice with raisins) and rusks. Community customs still practised are the announcement of a death by means of private letters or, usually now, notices in newspapers; the compiling of a list of those who attended the funeral; and the set ordering, according to rank and relationship, of the funeral procession. Pallbearers are the exception rather than the rule, except in the case of public men, but coffin-bearers, being closest male relatives and friends, are de rigueur. Hired professional mourners have not been used since the early 19th century. Cremation is gaining much ground, both for economic reasons and because of a change in the conception of the hereafter. Generally speaking, burial customs are changing rapidly as a result of commercialisation.
A Malay funeral may often be seen wending its way for miles through the streets of Cape Town, the coffin being carried on the shoulders of men, who are changed from time to time, and attended by men (or boys) only.
The relationship between belief and practice is also evident among the Bantu. In general they have two main problems following death: first, to prevent the body falling into the hands of malevolent sorcerers, or the grave being desecrated by them; second, to convert the spirit of the deceased, which might be malicious at death, into a friendly ancestral spirit which can be of service to the whole tribe. Both these vital problems give rise to complicated customs and rites which may differ substantially from tribe to tribe. The original burial customs of the Bantu are changing radically under the influence of Christianity.
BIBL. Abel Coetzee: ‘Afrikaanse begrafnisgebruike’, Tydskrif vir Volkskunde en Volkstaal, Jan. 1959; Monica Hunter: Reaction to conquest (1961); E. J. Krige; The social system of the Zulus (1936); I. Schapera: Married life in an African tribe (1941).
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