Last Updated: 3rd February 2022
Even though death has become a part of everyday life in Ethiopia, like famines, war and disease, it is taken very seriously by Ethiopians.
There appears to be a process, regardless of the different rituals performed according to the varying religious, cultural and ethnic groups within the country, that is followed when someone dies. Within each group, the process is often followed very carefully.
In southern parts of the country, the whole celebration of the deceased takes longer and this includes the preparation of the body, the management of the funeral and the rituals that follow.
News of a death is meticulously planned and sensitively managed and delivered in a deliberate way so that no one feels disrespected.
Once news breaks that someone has died, the community of people attend the deceased’s home and comfort the grieving family in person.
This is a vocal affair in which the family of the deceased grieve vocally by crying and wailing. It is also very physical, with those grieving beating themselves and female relatives scratching their faces and pulling out their own hair. Men will praise the deceased, chant songs and tell stories about them.
The community comes together to prepare the funeral as the men help to set up the rooms, dig the site for burial and prepare the casket. There is a responsibility felt by the community to show their respect in this way.
There is an expectation that mourning lasts for three days in southern Ethiopia, unlike other parts of the country in which the deceased are often buried on the same day of their death. If the mourning period is three days or more, the body is kept preserved with medicinal plants and covered with a cotton garment.
Once the funeral takes place, mourning continues with relative visits being made to the bereaved family and females within the family shave their heads and wear ’netella’ or black scarves as well as avoiding make-up, elaborate clothing and jewellery for several weeks. Men choose to grow long beards and wear black for the same period.
In regions others than the south, mourning ends (predominantly for Orthodox and Catholic Christians) on the 40th day of a person’s death and a memorial service, followed by a meal that includes hundreds of people, are arranged. Once this is complete, normal life for the deceased returns.
If a person dies a long distance from home, it poses a logistical challenge for the bereaved to ensure that protocols are followed and expectations are met.
Despite traditions in Ethiopia fading out, what continues to be consistent is how the country’s society comes together to mourn and celebrate the deceased and support the grieving family.
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