Saying goodbye to loved ones
How South Africans across race and culture bury their friends and relatives
By Fiona Gounden, Zukile Majova, Mbulelo Baloyi and Tash Reddy
Rising funeral costs, coupled with the shortage of burial space fuelled
by the Aids pandemic, have led to some South African communities
rethinking the current methods of what to do with the bodies of loved
ones who have died.
However, because large sections of the population remain committed to
traditional ways of disposing of the dead, The Independent on Saturday
looked at different methods used by various communities and religions.
A Muslim burial is carried out as quickly as possible and in a fraction
of the time taken by other religions.
Islamic religious leaders said all limbs of the body have to be
straightened and the mouth closed by tying a cloth in such a way that it
goes from below the chin and around both sides of the head.
The eyes should be closed gently and the toes tied together so that the
legs do not move about. The body should be covered with a sheet and
thereafter the ghusl and Kafn (bathing and shrouding) must be carried
out as soon as possible. Arrangements should be made immediately to
obtain the death certificate and to prepare the grave.
Moulana Suleman Goga, of the Jamiatul Ulama of KwaZulu-Natal, says
Muslims opt to bury and not cremate.
"An adult male should be bathed by his father, son or brother. An adult
female by her mother, daughter or sister. If these persons are not
available, then it should be carried out by any Muslim male for male and
Muslim female for female."
The deceased Muslim is shrouded in a Kafn which comprises of different
types of material. The Muslims do not bury their dead in coffins.
The Kafn are the grave clothes for the dead. It is desirable that the
Kafn be made of white material and of quality according to the status of
the deceased. It is permissible to prepare one's Kafn in one's lifetime.
This will avoid a last-minute rush and inconvenience. The body is placed
into the ground with the garb.
Goga said the burial is carried out as soon as possible. "There is no
point in delaying the burial, as the soul has left the body. The person
will now enter the grave and be questioned about his life and actions.
Generally, the burial takes place within a few hours after death."
Close family members are generally asked to lower the deceased into the
grave. Verses from the Qur'an are recited at the head and side of the
grave after burial.
The shape of the grave, when filled, should be like the hump of a camel.
The height should be approximately 25cm. There should be no building,
wall or enclosure around the grave.
It is preferable to sprinkle water on the grave from the head to the
legs three times after the hump has been shaped. It is advisable to
recite the Qur'an after the grave is filled and shaped and people at the
grave beseech Allah to forgive the deceased and pray for his or her
Before the deceased is laid to rest a Janazah Salaah (supplication for
the deceased) is convened.
This is a congregational prayer interceding for the forgiveness of the
deceased. Islam has permitted mourning the death of a person for three
days only. There are no rituals or customs to be followed.
The Islamic Burial Council (IBC) was formed in 1998 with the aim of
ensuring that Muslim burials were carried out with dignity and has been
able to pave the way for many concessions where Muslim burials are
Salim Kazi, facilitator of the Trust, said: "Muslim funerals are
generally cheap and cost around R400. There's no storage facility, as
the body is immediately taken to the funeral home, left for a few hours
Kazi said the trust also has secured private burial sites for Muslims.
"We have private Muslim cemeteries in Overport and Clairwood. Muslim
burial areas in cemeteries that were previously owned by council are now
privately owned by the trust. These are in Red Hill, Cavendish and
In the case of Hindus, the deceased is generally cremated after the body
has been bathed and dressed in fresh clothes.
Hindu funerals are usually held within 24 hours of the death. The body
is kept at home facing south and a son or elder member of the family has
to repeat God's name into the right ear of the deceased.
A burning lamp, incense sticks, a photo of the deceased and their
favourite deity are placed next to the body. A burning fire is
maintained outside the house.
The last rites of the deceased is understood to be the most important
ritual for Hindus as it allows for the peaceful transmigration of the
soul to reach the feet of God.
This entails the body being bathed and dressed in the deceased's
favourite clothes and then placed in a casket for viewing. Betel leaves
and nuts are placed next to the body on the right side.
Two family members accompany the casket to the cremation site - an elder
and the person who will perform the rituals and a clay pot with fire is
carried by the person performing the last rites.
Small coins are thrown on the way to the crematorium, signifying that,
irrespective of the person's wealth, the dead must leave everything behind.
Women are not allowed to go to the cremation site. They will bathe and
wash clothes they used at the ceremony and then discard anything that
the body was lying on.
Various rituals are performed at the cremation with a host of prayer
essentials like camphor, incense sticks, oil lamps, garlands, loose
flowers, turmeric, milk and fruit.
At the crematorium the casket has to face south first. After placing the
body on the platform, the person performing the rites will circle the
body three times clockwise. Rice, flowers or coins are placed at the
mouth of the deceased on each round.
Prayers are then recited and the soul and body are finally separated as
the soul embarks peacefully to its destination.
Then the person performing the rites and the elder walks around the body
three times, anti-clockwise, with a water-filled clay pot.
After each circuit of the body, they will stop at the head of the body
and make a hole in the pot for water to come out. This water is splashed
onto the body and the pot is dropped behind the person carrying it.
Camphor is placed on the deceased and the family member performing the
rites will light it before walking away without turning back and looking
at the body.
While they wait for the ashes, the person who performed the rites will
then perform a ritual at a river where his head will be shaved.
After the ashes are collected, they are taken to the sea, where more
rituals are performed before putting the ashes into the water.
For Christians, funerals may either be private or open to the public. It
is not necessary to have the funeral immediately or within 24 hours.
The body is brought in a casket from the funeral parlour to the family
home or church where a service will be held.
After prayer and sermons, hymns are sung, tributes in the form of
speeches are made and friends and family are then allowed to view the body.
The service then moves to the burial site where another prayer is said.
Family members are given a final chance to view the body before burial.
Mourners then proceed to a gathering point where refreshments are provided.
The purpose of this gathering is to share memories of the deceased and
to help family members deal with their mourning.
For Catholics, death is not seen as an ending, but starting a new life
in heaven. Catholics believe the deceased takes on a new form, which is
the beginning of their eternal life and a transition into the other world.
Mourners will see the body for a specified time at the church before a
full requiem mass is held.
During and after the mass, the casket remains closed. The body is then
taken to the crematorium or cemetery where it is anointed for the last
time by the priest and then buried or cremated.
Jewish tradition believes in burying the body as soon after death as
possible. After the funeral a seven-day period of mourning is held at
the home of the mourners and is called the period of Shiva.
Seven members of the immediate family are expected to directly observe
the mourning period. These seven members cannot wear leather shoes, put
on make-up or use perfume, shave, take haircuts, bathe or indulge in
All mirrors in the house are covered and mourners sit on low stools or
on the floor.
Cremation is not allowed as the body is a gift from God. Autopsies are
also not allowed nor is the donation of body organs or embalming.
During Shiva friends and family bring prayers, condolences and support
as well as Kosher food. Mourners must eat a hard-boiled egg and
something round to indicate the circle of life. All normal activities
are suspended to fully concentrate on their grief so mourners will be
better prepared to re-enter life at the end of the period.
Among the Zulu-speaking people, burial rites differ from region to
region, with those living in far-north Zululand towards Swaziland and
Mozambique preferring to bury their deceased between dawn and just
In urban areas, the funeral service normally takes the whole of Saturday.
However, in some townships, such as Soweto in Gauteng and Madadeni
outside Newcastle in northern KwaZulu-Natal, funeral services are
conducted during the morning. In most cases, by lunch-time all the
mourners have dispersed.
However, Zulus belonging to the Church of Nazareth, popularly known as
the Shembe Church, usually bury their dead on Sundays.
Inanda Shembe Church spokesman, Edward Ximba, said funeral services are
normally held on Sundays, because Saturdays are days reserved for
"We treat the departed with much respect. Depending on the seniority of
the deceased, we normally use a cowhide to wrap around the body. This
also has to do with affordability, but we make sure that the departed
are accorded the maximum respect," said Ximba.
He added that before the deceased is taken to the grave side, all the
mourners file past the coffin, either inside the homestead or at the
venue where the service is held.
Ximba said women normally do not go near the grave side and there is a
demarcated area within which they have to sit on grass mats.
"In addition, we do not bury our departed in municipal cemeteries, but
we have our own dedicated burial sites known as Bhekabezayo," said
Ximba. He said there were about 40 such dedicated cemeteries for Shembe
"The reason is that in municipal cemeteries all kinds of people get
buried, such as sinners, criminals and other social deviants, and we
deem such places unholy."
According to University of KwaZulu-Natal academic and expert on African
culture, Prof Sihawu Ngubane, many African people continue to alienate
themselves from their traditional socio-cultural background in the name
of civilisation, modernity, progress and development.
In this way, says Ngubane, the Western culture continues to play a
significant role in alienating Africans.
"Today the cost of burial has escalated in such a way that the poor
cannot afford funeral costs. There is lack of respect for the dead
person through this modern burial system, where people are forced to pay
their respects at the funeral firm instead of the home of the deceased
person. This pushes the traditional customs away, and the significance
of participating at the burial of your loved one is lost."
He said to die in the traditional belief was like going back home where
"When going home, one needs respect, dignity and proper burial. Any
respectable Zulu was buried at home at the back or sides of their family
huts, except for the head of the family who was buried alongside the top
of the cattle kraal.
"In a nutshell, graves and not cemeteries are the soil of every Zulu
person. It is a place where people will go when crises arise in life and
it is a curse for any individual to be cremated.
"If someone is cremated, the Zulu people need to perform a cleansing
ritual before any individual may be accepted and welcomed in the world
of the ancestors. It is within the Zulu culture that people's bodies are
respected and put in a decent resting place, and therefore the younger
generations and family may have reference and access to the graves of
their loved ones.
"It is culture that the living connects with the dead at a certain
period of time or when the need arises. It is believed that misfortunes
or famine are caused by the anger of the ancestors."
Death in Xhosa tradition evolves around the assumption that people do
not die but are elevated to the realms of the beyond. There they assume
the status of being ancestors, where they see and watch over the living
while they themselves cannot be seen.
Writing in the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, no. 72
(September 1990), 24-35; Luke Pato, a lecturer in the Department of
Religious Studies at the University of Transkei, now called the Walter
Sisulu University, says it was customary in the early days to bury the
Xhosa dead sitting or standing, accompanied by their weapons, their
pipes, tobacco, and various other personal items which they would need
in the life after death.
This belief, he argues, is evident in the fact that Xhosas refer to a
funeral as ukufihla (hiding), as opposed to the disposal of the body.
Further, Pato says, the mourners would cry out to the deceased, begging
that he listen to them and ask the ancestors to forgive the ills of the
Theologist T B Soga in his Intlalo kaXhosa writes that the Xhosas have
always been horrified by the sight of a grave, because it was associated
with evil and misfortune.
He says this horrific image was ended when the Christians talked of
resurrection and life after death. "This represented an incremental
accretion in that the 'dead who became ancestors' became 'the dead who
The unveiling of a tombstone is important among black Zionists, who
focus more on the aspects of the ceremony of ukubuyisa (a ceremonial
re-incorporation of a departed relative into the family of the living
and the dead).
These unveilings are initiated by a dream or a vision, where one member
of the family, who is also a member of a church congregation, sees the
deceased in a dream.
The unveiling of a tombstone is an expensive exercise, but the elders
maintain it is a worthwhile tradition to maintain fellowship and
constant communication between the living and the dead.
Traditionally, the head of the family would be in charge at the funeral,
but the involvement of the church means the ceremony is often presided
over by a pastor. The family head then gets the right and privilege of
speaking at the grave site about the deceased.
Although previously the ceremony was performed without a tombstone being
built, the symbiotic nature of religion and tradition among
Xhosa-speaking people has made it a necessity.
Pato says the ukubuyisa ceremony is largely an occasion for celebrating
and rejoicing. In some families it coincides with the removal of
"As a ceremony, ukubuyisa involves an incorporation of the deceased into
the communion and fellowship of one's family. The ritual does not
involve bringing home the bones of the deceased. Rather it marks the
beginning of the period when the deceased 'turns round' (ukuguquka) and
faces the home, of which the deceased once again becomes one of its
protectors, and in whose affairs the deceased becomes one of its
Published on the web by The Independent on Saturday on July 29, 2005. ©
The Independent on Saturday 2005. All rights reserved.