Xhosa Funeral Traditions

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A letter from a Xhosa Grandmother to her grandchild explaining the traditions of a Xhosa Funeral.



So today I want to tell you about how we bury the dead and why we do this.
You will have seen us empty the house and make space for all the family that comes from all
over.
We have to feed them, and they sit with us bezila nathi (they mourn with us).
As you know most of the time the funeral is on the second Saturday after the death and the
body will be brought to the house just before the funeral. Everybody must come to the day of
the funeral and many people give speeches.

On the day of the funeral or some time soon afterwards you have seen our 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 we all eat the meat, outside of the house.
All the meat must be eaten before any other food is served.

Our elders speak to the ancestors and we are all serious during this time. This is when we tell
you to keep quiet too. The dead person carries our messages to the ancestors so that they
remember us and do not forget to forgive us. 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, as you know, „UMKAPHO“.

Maybe you have wondered why we do this mainly for the men and not for the women. Well,
the women know the way, so they do not need help.
We put beer and meat and flowers and a white candle in the corner of the house. The beer
and the meat are for the ancestors to taste. The burning candle keeps the bad spirits away
that like to come to funerals. That is also why we burn imphepho.
(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.)
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 we like to sprinkle you and the adults as well with water and
herbs to cleanse you from any shadows you may have picked up.
The clan decides together how long ukuzila should be: Sometimes 6 months, sometimes 9
months, sometimes a year. The women have to wear black during that time and stay at
home. The men usually wear a black button or scarf.
At the end of ukuzila we women gather round the widow and bring her new clothes. We take
her old, black clothes off and burn them. Then we put the new colourful clothes on her. We
call this “„KHULULA IZILA“ (which means take off from mourning.) This is why we only ever
wear cheap black clothes during ukuzila, because at the end of ukuzila they get burned.
The men do not have this ritual.
After about a year or longer we hold as you know “UMBUYISO“. This is when we celebrate,
that the person who died has now become a real ancestor and has come back to us to help
and protect us.

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.

Sometimes “UMBUYISO” and the unveiling of the tombstone happen at the same time.
“UMBUYISO“, we celebrate again and again. Whenever we have a dream about the person,
and they ask us for food or drink, we celebrate it, in their honours. It says “welcome home” to
the ancestors.

My dear umzukulwana, I have written a little today about how we bury our dead.
The important thing to remember is that they are just in hiding (this is what the Xhosa word for
funeral means) they cannot be seen, but they watch over us.

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