Zambian Funerals And Change

It has been said that the only constant in life is change. Change is a pervasive process that affects every area of our life, including funerals.

Change must be managed in order to prevent negative social outcomes. When it comes to funerals, one way of doing this is to openly discuss the changes in our behavior in the light of what we would like to see. This may involve openly discussing desirable standards of behavior. The danger of not openly discussing acceptable standards of behavior is the possible evolution of unacceptable standards of behavior.

In this article, I would like to comment on one or two changes that I proposed elsewhere in the behavior of people during a Zambian funeral.

The Microsoft Encarta English Dictionary defines the word “funeral” as a “ceremony for someone who has died: a rite held to mark the burial or cremation of a corpse, especially a ceremony held immediately before burial or cremation.” I suppose this is the Western concept of the term “funeral”.

In Africa, and Zambia in particular, a funeral is one indivisible process that extends from the day someone’s death is announced to the day the mourners officially disperse. This view of a funeral is based on the African traditional view of death. According to African belief, the dead are regarded as still with us, though in an invisible state.

Though this African view of death has been impacted by Western beliefs, it is not uncommon to still find someone addressing a dead person as though the dead person were alive.

We need to be cognizant of this dimension of the African view of death if we are to appreciate the behavior of mourners during a Zambian funeral.  

For instance, the tendency by Zambians to buy very costly coffins for the burial of dead relatives, at the expense of the financial needs of the surviving spouse and children, can be understood in the context of this belief about death. If the dead are conscious of human activity in the material world, they will be offended by the act of burying them in a cheap coffin.

Ancient Egypt provides a classic example of how the Egyptian view of death influenced the way they buried their pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians believed that when people died they reincarnated to a new life somewhere here on earth. To ensure that their pharaohs started their new life on a financially sound footing, their coffins were stuffed with gold worth billions of dollars.

When I was young, my mother would always tell me how she envied those people whose children bought for them the most expensive coffins when they died. She often said how she wished one of her children would do this for her. It obviously mattered to her how a person was treated once he or she died. This may be a reflection of her beliefs regarding the nature of death.

I imagine that there are many parents who share my mother’s view and who tell their children to honor them in death by burying them in expensive coffins. If you are the kind of person who believes that when people die, they cease to exist, you may be offended by the apparent senseless extravagance of such funerals.

So, in order to change identified negative practices, we must first deal with the underlying beliefs of the people concerned. Otherwise, we are likely to face strong resistance to our well-intended efforts to change their ways.

In one of my articles on this website (Improving The Way We Mourn Our Dead In Zambia), I talked about the need to restrict the number of people attending a funeral to a reasonable number. This suggestion, however, should not be allowed to take away a very essential role served by funerals – that of uniting families.

A funeral is one occasion at which members of the extended family come together to mourn a common relative. A funeral gathering is, therefore, an opportunity for relatives who have never met each other to get introduced to each other. The strategy to reduce the number of people attending a funeral should, therefore, be directed at those people who have no meaningful relationship with the deceased person.

In the past, death was such a rare occurrence and communities were much smaller than they are today. It made sense for everyone to attend every funeral conducted for departed friends and relatives. Given the complexities of modern life and the increased urban and rural populations today, not everyone can manage to attend every funeral that is announced.

For example, with the advent of AIDS/HIV, there are so many burials taking place. There is, therefore, a cost to society in terms of man hours spent at funerals. Businesses definitely cannot afford this.   

As regards the concern which I raised regarding the danger of spreading communicable diseases at large funeral gatherings due to inadequate toilet facilities, Dr. John Sendama, this website’s editor, has suggested that entrepreneurs or the city council can start providing “portable toilets” for hire. (Andrew-Kurt of Lusaka, a company which is owned by one of my nephews, is in this kind of business.)

Dr. Sendama has also made an observation on my proposal for us to reject negative old traditions. His view is that when we decide to reject an old tradition, we should ask ourselves the following question, “What are we replacing this practice with?”

Dr. Sendama’s suggestion is a wonderful strategy that should be extended to all other areas of Zambian life. One such area is that of marriage.

A long-standing tradition has been for a bride to be initiated into marriage sex life by female traditional counselors referred to in Bemba as “ifimbuusa” and in Njanja as “alangizi.” More and more Zambians are turning their back on this old-age tradition for various reasons that include the influence of some Christian churches in the country.

This tradition has been the most effective means of equipping a woman for her sexual role in marriage. If no measure is taken to replace this old tradition with a new one that serves the teaching role played by the former tradition, a great deal of harm will be done to future marriages. It is possible that some young ignorant wife may restrict her role in marriage to that of washing clothes, cleaning the house and cooking meals.

Getting back to old funeral traditions, Dr. Sendama’s reasoning is very applicable to the old practice of “property grabbing” by relatives of the deceased person.

Actually, the term “property grabbing” is an insult to ancient African wisdom. In African societies, an individual was considered an integral part of the community. Property was more or less jointly owned by members of the community. An individual was viewed as a custodian of property on behalf of the community. You could say that this was a form of socialism.

When a person died, the property had to be distributed to surviving stakeholders. With the coming of the colonialists, however, the African social set-up was transformed into an individualistic mode of existence. Hence, the use of the term “property grabbing” for what was otherwise a decent and ethical distribution of a deceased person’s estate by the community.

In order to do away completely with the practice of “property grabbing”, we must replace the tradition with a more equitable mechanism for distributing the estate of the departed. Resorting to the simplistic system of legal redress may not address all the intricacies of Zambian traditional life.

Yes, change is needed in the way Zambian funerals are conducted, but I concur with Dr. Sendama that this must not be change for the sake of change. We must always seek to understand the purposes served by seemingly negative old practices lest we be guilty of throwing the baby with the dirty bath water.


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