Last Updated: 08th July 2022
You might think that Zambia’s funeral traditions are likely to vary as their diverse culture proves.
With seventy two tribes that are as unique in their traditions and cultural customs, Zambia’s funeral rites are surprisingly often similar.
Within the cultural traditions of Zambians, it is the family members of the deceased person who these funeral rites are performed for, with the exception of unmarried people, children, those that have died through suicide, those who have been cursed or those that have been killed by an animal.
Burial is the main funeral rite of most tribes in Zambia.
Whilst modern times have brought a culture of the family burying their deceased loved one in expensive linen before placing them in a casket for burial, in years gone by, the deceased person would be wrapped in fresh animal hides or reed mats.
In rural areas, an all-night wake with a campfire takes place outside the deceased person’s home at which all the household furniture is moved outside so that people can feel comfortable whilst mourning. Mourners are invited inside the family home to view the deceased person and pay their final respects.
The wake will have loud mourning audible and those in attendance may bring food and monetary gifts for the deceased person’s grieving family.
In Zambia, there are some tribes that bury their deceased family members behind their home in a family graveyard, whilst others bury their deceased loved ones in private cemeteries.
According to a Christian religious denomination in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, within tribal cultures, once burial has taken place, another animal is sacrificed that joins the deceased person to the land of the living dead. The meat of this sacrificial animal is roasted and eaten without salt.
The ritual continues as the animal’s bones are burnt, and its ashes given over to the mourners of the deceased person to drink and wash their faces and feet with.
Once burial and the traditions that accompany such an event within a Zambian tribe has taken place, all mourners leave. The only people that are left behind are close relatives of the deceased person so they can be present for a formal grieving period in which audible wailing occurs and can vary in lengths of time according to tribe but often lasts for one week.
During this period, no one is permitted to leave the funeral home without obtaining approval as it could constitute as them performing witchcraft.
When the period of grieving takes place, it is common for the older relatives of the deceased person stand guard at their tomb to protect them in the graveyard ensuring that it is not tampered with. If anyone believes their deceased loved one’s grave has been meddled with, a formal investigation will follow to find out the cause of their death.
It is often believed that if the grave remains intact, the deceased person who occupies it therefore died of natural causes and no further action needs to be taken.
The last funeral rite that Zambian tribes follow after burial and the grieving period is one of calling the spirit of the deceased person back to their family. A large feast is prepared and the event acts as the end of all imposed restrictions that family members of the deceased had to follow during the previous period.
It is at this time that any property of the deceased person is divided amongst their close family relatives.
In the more traditional and modern parts of Zambia, a more traditional funeral may take place with Christian Protestants being the majority religion within the country. The funerals in Zambia are often large events and can last several days which allows those that need to travel from further away to be able to attend at some point.
It is usually on the third day after the deceased person’s death that the funeral takes place. Black clothing is optional but all clothing is modest and older and women don’t wear make-up.
For Zambian families that cannot afford an expensive or even wooden coffin, a ladder made of tree fibres has been known to be used.
The burial plot is often dug by the deceased person’s family members and the funeral procession to the funeral home takes place with songs being sung during mourning. Women and men sit separately from men at a Zambian funeral.
When the burial takes place, two members of the deceased person’s family climb into the grave and have their deceased loved one passed to them. Prayers and words are spoken about the deceased person as mourners throw soil on top of the coffin. It is often that, following that, cement is poured over the coffin to avoid graverobbers stealing it.
Once the funeral ceremony has taken place, it is customary for the deceased person’s home to be swept, with their loved ones shaving their heads, drinking traditional herbal drinks which is believed to be a way to help heal their broken hearts.
Before they enter the house, their feet are washed with clean water.
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