Quick guide to AbaThembu mourning and burial customs

2013-12-11 14:24

The Eastern Cape cooperative governance and traditional affairs ministry has issued a guide to the customs of the Eastern Cape AbaThembu people, of which the late former president Nelson Mandela was a member, to explain how the mourning process is observed.

Some of the relevant cultural practices are:

» Funeral preparations

Before the funeral takes place, the furniture of the main house of the deceased is removed and the house gets cleaned up.

While in the past the walls of the house used to be covered with soil (mud), it now gets painted. A traditional mat is then put on the floor below the window for the widow to sit on in the build-up to the funeral.

» Umkhapho (accompanying the spirit of the deceased to the other world)

This is a ritual that gets performed when the head of a household dies to accompany his spirit to the world of ancestors. In the case of an important person, an ox gets slaughtered early in the morning on the day of the funeral.

Men cook the meat in boiling water only, and eat it outside the house.

» Ukuzila (Mourning)

This ritual starts immediately after the deceased has been confirmed to have died. It’s primary meaning is “abstinence” as it imposes restrictions on dress code, diet and the performance of chores over a certain period. All the family members shave their heads and stay away from festivities.

For the widow it lasts up to a year, while for the husband it takes between three and six months. At the end of the mourning period, the widow’s mourning clothes are burnt, and women bring her new clothes during the cleansing ceremony.

» Umbuyiso (the return of an ancestral spirit)

This is when the spirit of the dead is brought back as an ancestor to protect the family. It often happens within the first year. An ox is usually slaughtered for a man. Unlike umkhapho, umbuyiso is celebratory and includes the brewing and drinking of traditional beer.

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