Pandemic Could Forever Alter Funeral Rituals

Experts warn that abandoning traditional practices — already shifting under outside influences — will further dilute Zimbabwe’s culture.

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Pandemic Could Forever Alter Funeral Rituals

Illustration by Matt Haney, GPJ

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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Isabelle Nyathi never thought she would miss her own mother’s funeral. But that’s what happened in June, when Zimbabwe’s coronavirus restrictions kept her from traveling to neighboring South Africa to bury her mom.

Nyathi did go to South Africa in November to visit the grave of her mother, who died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. There, she kept the Ndebele tribe’s tradition of “ukuphosa ilitshe” — throwing a stone on the grave.

Ideally, she and other relatives would have kept other post-burial traditions, too. With her mother buried in a foreign land, that was impossible.

“As the eldest child in the family, it was heartbreaking that I could not be present to bury my mother,” says Nyathi, a single mother who works as a nurse at a hospital in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. “Traditionally, I was supposed to be present to choose my mother’s favorite clothes she was going to be buried in.”

Such is the anguished fate of many Zimbabweans, who are unable to carry out funeral rituals because of the coronavirus pandemic. Experts warn that doing away with these rituals will further dilute Zimbabwean traditions that Western influence and trends have already watered down.

Daves Guzha, a filmmaker, producer and firm believer in African traditions, says burials and funeral ceremonies were crumbling long before the pandemic.

“Traditionally, funerals and burial ceremonies were done by the community or family elders, because they knew the rituals to be done at such ceremonies,” he says. “However, in most cases we find that churches now run most funerals and at times clash with traditional rituals done at these ceremonies by those who still believe in the cultural rituals.”

The government enacted a coronavirus lockdown in January — the second since the pandemic erupted in early 2020 — but partially lifted it in March. Travel restrictions no longer apply, but funerals are limited to 30 people.

“As the eldest child in the family, it was heartbreaking that I could not be present to bury my mother."

The Shona, Zimbabwe’s largest tribe, who live mainly in eastern Zimbabwe, and the Ndebele people, most of whom reside in the southwest and are the second-largest tribe, keep funeral and burial rituals.

In those tribes and others, these rituals allow mourners to express emotion. They also define and enforce both individual and collective identity.

In Shona culture, burial rituals include the “kurova guva,” whereby family members traditionally visit the grave a year after a relative’s death and perform rites meant to return the spirit of the dead “home” to guide and look after the living.

During the ceremony, family and friends drink traditional beer, sing and dance in memory of the dead.

Ndebele rituals kick in as soon as a death is announced. In normal times, friends and relatives pour into the bereaved family’s home, removing the living room furniture to make space for mourners. A typical funeral can attract 300 people.

The wake may last a week or longer. Songs and prayers console the grieving family. Men sit on their own, and the women hover together, cooking by the fire.

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But the government has temporarily placed limits on visits to the deceased’s home. Friends and relatives can no longer dance and sing around their beloved’s corpse. Bodies now go from the mortuary to burial.

“People are cutting the traditional practices short,” says Prince Sibanda, secretary for education of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association.

In November, Sethu Dlamini, a self-employed tailor and mother of two, lost her 82-year-old father to cancer. He was a well-known philanthropist, and typically Dlamini would have needed a tent to hold all the people gathered to celebrate his life.

Instead, there was no wake.

“It was a very lonely time,” she says.

Another common ritual involves family and friends returning to the home of the bereaved for lunch after the burial. At the gate, mourners who went to the cemetery wash their hands, a tradition believed to cleanse them of both dirt and spirits.

“This particular tradition only became more pronounced and effective during COVID-19,” says Thomas Sithole, a civic society activist.

Today, mourners still gather at the deceased’s home. But if more than 30 are present, they can’t enter.

Some have come to the traditional healers association lamenting that “they are dealing with angry spirits who feel they have been disrespected in the way they were buried, [that it] is not according to our traditional culture,” Sibanda says.

Burial and funeral rituals rely on in-person contact and oral tradition, he says. Typically, an elder who knows what is to be done passes along to the next generation both the how and why of those rituals. Coronavirus orders keep that from happening.

“Going back to our full cultural practices will likely never happen,” Sibanda says, “unless chiefs and custodians of our traditional culture make a serious effort to re-educate the younger generations after the pandemic has been reined in.”

Fortune Moyo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Fortune specializes in stories about the impact of Zimbabwe’s fragile economy on education.

Kudzai Mazvarirwofa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on development and land reform.

Translation Note

Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Ndebele. Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.