Funeral Traditions in Zambia

by P-Francone

Zambia is officially a Christian country with Roman Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, New Apostolic Church, Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah's Witnesses, Branhamism, and a variety of Evangelical denominations.

Due to the spread out nature of Zambia’s numerous cities and villages, funeral and burial customs vary greatly from one place to the next. Most customs in the country combine traditional beliefs with modern ones, making all funerals there very uniquely Zambian.

The first thing that a close family does when somebody dies is spread the word through their network of friends and family, by finding them in person or increasingly by cellphone and the Internet. A common way to alert people too is to go to the nearest branch of the ZNBC (Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation) and request a public announcement of the death with funeral information. After almost every daily news bulletin, this information is announced to the public, with somber music in the background.

The body is immediately brought to the hospital mortuary or morgue, and all the friends and family members travel to the home where the funeral will be taking place . Relatives can be found loudly sobbing in the living room, and as more friends and family members arrive, they will start loudly mourning as they walk up to the house. All the neighbors, as they hear the mourning will also come over to mourn the family’s loss.

The mourning that takes place is much different from ordinary crying. The loud, grief-stricken crying by the men is called kukhuza among the Tumbuka in Eastern Zambia. This is a deep and loud crying which is accompanied by the sound “may,baba-beeee! mayi,baba-beeee!” The crying by the women is called chitengelo, and sounds like a loud “Ye-e—e-e-e-egh! Ye-e—e-e-e-egh! Ye-e—e-e-e-egh!” This is a very distinctive and unique mourning cry that is very rhythmic and high pitched, The most soulful crying is also known as kudinginyika, and can often be heard miles around in rural villages. When anyone hears the chitengelo in the village they know for sure that someone close to them has died.

After everyone has arrived at the house, the women gather in the kitchen to prepare meals and accept donations of food and money for funeral expenses. The men gather outside to make arrangements for their responsibilities, which include picking up friends and family at bus stops, train stations and airports. Some men also will drive women to the grocery store or go and collect firewood from the forest for the wake. Others still will go buy the casket, figure out when the body can be moved from the hospital to the funeral home and to obtain the death certificate from city council. After all these responsibilities have been taken care of, an all night long wake will be held around a campfire outside. All the furniture will be removed from the home for the men to use while they sit outside, and the women will stay in the empty house.

In rural or poorer areas, the process is a bit different. The people will gather in village hut corridors, chiwundo, village open spaces or just under trees. The body will be laid down in the middle of the family’s home, and mourners are encouraged to come in and view the body. Sometimes animals are slaughtered, in order to honor the dead person and feed the visitors. Many people will bring food donations and sometimes beer. Young men will walk over to the village burial ground and dig the gravesite, somewhere near where relatives have been buried in the past, something which requires the knowledge of elders.

The funeral is generally held on the third day after death for wealthier Zambians, or those living in cities such as Lusaka. For rural dwellers the funeral will take place that same day. Women are expected to dress modestly, and in an old dress with a chitenje cloth wrapped around them, black is optional. For shoes they should wear either tennis shoes, flip flops or pata pata. They should wear no makeup. Men are expected to wear casual or old clothes too, with worn out or well used shoes or sandals.

Instead of a casket, in the rural areas the body will be simply carried on a ladder made from tree fibers. The body will be washed by the women and wrapped up in a blanket and then in a reed mat. Occasionally families can afford a simple wooden coffin, but generally just the wooden ladder is used. The men and women will sit separately at the burial under trees. Two men will climb down into the grave while the ten male pallbearers will pass the body down to them. Close relatives will throw dirt down onto the body and a priest will say a few prayers, afterward mourners will make a few comments about the deceased. As the mourners walk back to the village, they will wash their feet off in one of several containers of clean water before reentering the village.

In the cities, the funeral procession will start off at the house, and they all will travel toward the funeral home. The mourners all sing funeral songs and weep and mourn. Large crowds gather at the funeral home and queue up for an opportunity to view the open casket (if possible). After this the procession travels to the church for the service, then finally to the cemetery for the burial. The men who are the least close to the family of the deceased do the digging and take care of all the physical burial requirements, including lowering the body into the ground. Like the rural burials, all the close family members are then asked to throw some soil into the grave, as the priest says the last prayers and people make last comments. Mourners are encouraged to say whatever is on their mind, whether funny, sad or serious.

The men will fully bury the casket after the burial service. Sometimes they cover the casket with cement to prevent graverobbers from getting in. If the employee of a company passes away, the employer is usually expected to cover the cost of the funeral, which usually costs about US$300 for a basic funeral.

Moreso in the rural areas than the cities, the close relatives will perform the custom known to them as kuphyera, or sweep. The area around the deceased’s home is all swept, and the people all have their heads shaved and they drink some traditional herbs. This is meant to help their broken hearts to heal.

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