Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Zimbabwean funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Jewish funeral traditions and Vietnamese funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Zimbabwe Religion and Ethnic Groups
Zimbabwe has several ethnic groups, with the largest being the Shona at 82% of the population. The next largest is Ndebele at 14% of the population, but we’ll focus on the Shona throughout this article.
Christianity is the most common religion, with 87% of the population identifying as Christians. Roughly 60-80% of Shonas are Christians, but they also have their own traditional beliefs. They believe in heaven, but they believe the afterlife is another form of existence in the world rather than another world. They also believe Mwari is the creator of the Shona.
Traditionally, when someone died, they made an offering to Mwari by burning wood. If the smoke went up to heaven, they knew the deceased was with Mwari. There’s also “the returning ox” ritual, where they sacrifice an ox. This might be done before the burial, so they can cover the deceased with its hide.
It’s important that they perform funeral rituals and prayers for the deceased. The deceased’s life after death can depend on how many of their family members perform rituals for them. Also, if they don’t perform any rituals, the deceased’s spirit may cause trouble for their family.
Before a Zimbabwean funeral, there is an all-night vigil for mourning the deceased and comforting their family. It’s a time of celebration, with music and dancing, but also a time of mourning. They also may play the mbira instrument made of a wooden board and metal keys. It’s used to contact the deceased’s ancestors for guidance. It also can prevent severe weather, like floods and droughts, get rid of evil spirits, and cure illness.
Traditionally, burials were close to home. If you lived in an urban area, you may have it in a rural area instead. A Zimbabwean funeral was in the early morning rather than late afternoon. They believed witches roamed during the late afternoon looking for bodies for their evil acts.
Burial traditions depend on your totem, which represents the clan you belong to among many Zimbabwe ethnic groups. Currently, there are about 25 different totems, and their names usually are animals or body parts. The burial must be done by someone of the same totem. For example, a Ndebele of the same totem can do the burial, but a Shona of a different totem cannot. If someone from a different totem performs the burial, they must pay a fine to the family. Payments were traditionally cattle or goats, but today it’s a monetary payment.
They bury the deceased with utensils, walking sticks, blankets, and things related to their job. The deceased’s immediate family stands together on the same side of the grave. However, they can’t speak or participate in the burial. Afterward, there’s a ceremony to relax the spirit and mark the end of mourning.
Then, everyone goes to the deceased’s home for a funeral meal. Before entering the home, everyone does a cleansing ritual to remove cemetery dirt or dust from their clothing. Traditionally, families had a cleansing ritual for the deceased’s entire home to get rid of bad luck.
One year after the death, there’s a final ceremony with a combination of Christian and traditional rituals. After one year is when they believe the spirit becomes a spirit guardian and protector for their family.