Improving The Way We Mourn Our Dead In Zambia

In a letter to the Post newspaper of 8 November 2011, Oliver Kalumba of Lusaka expressed his “dismay at the blatant and continuous sale of alcohol at burial sites in Lusaka by illegal vendors targeting some mourners” He observed that it was “taboo to buy and drink alcohol whilst burying a beloved one” He considered this practice to be “an affront to the bereaved family”

Selling beer at a burial site is a new trend that has manifested only very recently. In the past, the drinking of any alcoholic beverage could never be entertained at a funeral. Those who wanted to take alcohol were free to do so away from a funeral home. A funeral was considered too solemn an occasion to allow normal pleasant pastimes activities such as the drinking of beer.

These days, the drinking of beer at funeral houses is quite common, especially among the more affluent members of society. There is really nothing wrong with this when you consider that mourners have to sit through the night doing nothing. Drinking beer at funerals is, however, bad when it leads to riotous behavior among mourners.  

Taking alcohol at a burial site should be discouraged because of the tendency by the youth to over-indulge in the habit to the extent of causing chaos during the actual burial of the departed soul’s body. I have personally witnessed several nasty incidents at the burial site resulting from alcohol abuse among the youth.

There are many negative practices at funerals other than the taking of alcohol that need to be discouraged or stopped altogether. While some of these are a recent development, many of them have their origin in the distant past. 

Most Zambians are aware of these undesirable practices and would like something to be done about them but, sadly, the Zambian society does not regard the discussion of death and funerals as a normal thing to do. This attitude is a hang-up from the past when any talk about death was regarded as taboo.

I think we owe it to ourselves to begin to question negative practices at funerals in order to make funerals more tolerable. We must do everything we can to minimize the stress that presently characterizes a Zambian funeral.

In this article, I wish to discuss some negative practices that I think deserve urgent attention. 

These days, there is a tendency for most Zambians to buy very expensive coffins for departed relatives. The large amounts of money spent on the coffin are unjustified when one considers other critical areas of need. For example, the money spent on coffins could be better spent on paying off debts incurred by the deceased person and the sustenance of the deceased person’s surviving dependants.

People who buy expensive coffins usually do so for one of two reasons: either to satisfy their vanity or, according to a dear friend of mine, as a way of assuaging the guilt of not having done enough for their relatives while they were alive. According to my friend, it is better to spend the money on the relative while they are alive rather than when they die. What benefit will a dead person derive from a gold-plated coffin?

Something that I find as unreasonable as the buying of very expensive coffins is the practice of spending all the available money on the funeral with no thought for the surviving spouse and children’s future needs. In my opinion, there is great need to ensure that enough money is put aside to help the bereaved family survive after everyone has dispersed and left the family to fend for itself. 

One serious problem during funerals is the attitude of some relatives and members of society who view funerals as an opportunity to have free meals. People who clearly have no material or financial contribution to make to the funeral hang around at the funeral house and faithfully consume all the meals provided. These people create an unnecessary cost burden for the bereaved family.

One solution to this problem is to publicly ask people from around the neighborhood to avoid taking meals at the funeral house in order to minimize feeding expenses. A further suggestion is to ask people travelling to a funeral from distance places to ensure that they have their own transport money for their return journy so as not to place a financial burden on the bereaved family. Of course, the exception would be those relatives whose attendance is deemed critical, and who the members of the bereaved family are prepared to help out with transport money. 

A Zambian funeral is a social event that requires the participation of a multitude of people. However, the gathering of people together in small spaces without regard to their health status in terms of communicable diseases is a serious source of concern.

It is common to have persons suffering from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and chickenpox sit closely with other people thus posing a danger to those people’s health. There is no mechanism for detecting people with such health conditions or preventing them from attending a funeral gathering.

In the majority of cases, no effort is made to provide hygienic toilet facilities to cater for the large number of people at a funeral house. Usually, there is only one toilet in the house which is reserved for the use of the women inside the house. During daytime, the men are forced to walk long distances to find an available public toilet. At night, the men resort to “watering” hedges in the neighbourhood.

The unhygienic sharing of cups to drink the traditional “munkoyo”served to mourners at a funeral house is an additional health threat. In most of the low cost townships, there is not enough water available to wash the cups after they have been used by one group of mourners before they are passed on to another group.

In order to minimize the risks associated with the large funeral gatherings, measures should be taken to limit the number of people sleeping at the funeral house. This can be done by sensitizing the public on the health threats posed by large funeral gatherings through appropriate radio and television programmes and other community sensitization strategies. 

There are certain traditional practices at funerals that once served their purpose but have since lost their meaning, and can at best be regarded as disruptive to the social order. One such practice is the pouring of ground maize powder by members of the Bemba tribe on their bereaved Tumbuka counterparts, and vice versa. (The Bembas and Tumbukas regard each other as tribal cousins. At every available opportunity they will tease each other in all sorts of ways.)

This practice was acceptable in a village setting and in days when life was simple and less commercialized. These days, it is quite inconsiderate for someone to pour a bucketful of maize powder on a smartly dressed person who has just taken time off from work to attend a burial session and has to return to his or her place of work.

Another ritual performed by tribal cousins is locking the gate to the funeral house and only allowing their “cousins”to enter the yard after producing a significant sum of money. Traditionally, this money was collected on behalf of the bereaved family in order to help them cope with various funeral expenses. These days, however, unscrupulous characters use this practice as a means of extorting money from innocent mourners for their own selfish use.

I would like to mention something that I personally find detestable at funerals –the now frequent spectacle of inappropriate and indecent singing and dancing by members of the choir during the funeral. It is quite common these days to see seemingly drunk church choir members put up crazed performances for the mourners on the pretext of comforting the bereaved family. This display of senseless behavior tends to make a mockery of the funeral and is a source of embarrassment for the bereaved family.

My catalogue of negative practices would be incomplete if I did not include an observation made by my dear friend referred to above. This concerns the female relatives of the deceased person who make it their business to judge the widow’s grief. They come up with comments about how the widow is not crying loud enough or long enough, or is sleeping when in their opinion she should still be wailing.

They seem to be unaware that different people express grief in different ways. Yet these people will often conclude, based on their superficial criteria, that the widow is not sorrowful enough, and might even surmise that, therefore, she is guilty of killing the husband.

To improve the way funerals are conducted, there is need to address the problems highlighted above. However, there is also need to introduce some positive practices such as the ones suggested below:

One, I would like to suggest the introduction of registers for mourners at a funeral house. This practice would not only avoid unscrupulous people staying at the funeral house but also reduce the incidence of thieves who come to the funeral house to steal shoes and other items belonging to unsuspecting mourners. The registers would also help the police track these thieves.

Two, I would like to encourage concerned social organizations to conduct campaigns to sensitize the public about the need to specifically save money for future funeral expenses. This practice would reduce the financial and psychological stress experienced by many people when a close relative passes away.

Three, I would like to encourage the formation of funeral organizing committees whenever somebody dies. These committees should be tasked with the responsibility of overseeing every aspect of the funeral. This responsibility should not just be left to the grieving family members, although their views should always be considered.

Four, I would personally like to see individual members of society set up organizations to offer professional consultancy or counseling services to help the bereaved cope with their loss and start a new life. At the moment a person in mourning has nowhere to turn for professional psychological counseling to help them experience emotional healing.

Five, I would like to suggest that social discussion forums on ways to improve the way funerals are conducted be organized across the country. No area of life should be considered too sacred to be opened up to social debate.

Last, but not least, I would like to add a wonderful suggestion made by Dr. John Sendama (the Kitwe On Line editor). He has suggested that relatives of the deceased person should preserve the speech given at the graveside. The speech is usually in a written form. This document contains precious family historical facts that the family has come together and put together. Distressed relatives may not always remember details later on.

In this article, I have mentioned only a few practices at Zambian funerals that I feel need to be urgently changed. There are, however, many other practices and beliefs that need to be revisited. What I have tried to do is to open a debate regarding the way funerals are conducted in Zambia.

I would encourage readers to take advantage of the INSAKA forum on this website to share their views regarding various aspects of funerals in Zambia. Until we begin to express ourselves on issues that affect all of us, little progress can be made towards reforming traditions and practices that are inimical to society. 


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