Death and Mourning Practices in Rural Ethiopia

Ethiopians have elaborate traditions associated with death and bereavement. Though death has become a part of everyday life just like war, famine, and disease; people take it seriously, and almost personally.

When someone dies in Ethiopia, in addition to the conventional signs of grief, there are specific characteristics unique to communities in the rural region. The universal grief responses may be the same but culturally sanctioned rituals vary tremendously among the various ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in the country.

For instance, in southern Ethiopia where various ethnic groups co-exist together, the celebration of the dead takes a longer process. Handling the body, managing the funeral process, and the commemoration of the death follows culturally prescribed rituals. The process of informing family members is handled with great sensitivity. News of the death is orchestrated carefully, and done by a group of elderly or respected community members.

As soon as the bad news is announced, people start gathering at the deceased’s home to comfort the grieving family. Families are expected to express their grief openly. Usually, they cry, wail loudly, call out the name of the deceased, and beat their foreheads and chests. Female relatives may scratch their face and tear out their hair, throw themselves to the ground, faint, or attempt to harm themselves as a manifestation of intense grief. Men often chant songs, praise and tell stories about the deceased one.

Young men help with setting up rooms, looking after the arriving guests, digging the burial site and preparing the casket. If the grieving family does not have a large house, a white tent will be set up outside or alongside the street to accommodate people. Neighbors organize materials required for the event such as chairs, tables, cookware, blankets and etc. These voluntary actions are often considered as a social responsibility and give a sense of pride.

Close friends and neighbors also bring food and drinks to feed the arriving guests as the grieving family is not expected to be involved in any domestic activities. The community assumes the responsibility of hosting people who come to pay their respects.

Three days of mourning is the norm, and families are under social pressure to do so even if their circumstances do not allow that. Unlike in many parts of the country where the dead are buried on the same day, in southern regions such as in Kemabta, Hadiya, Sidama, and Wolayita the burial takes place on the third day, sometimes even longer. This gives distant relatives ample time to arrive for the burial. During this time, the body is preserved by traditional techniques using medicinal plants and kept in a wooden casket covered with a new cotton garment.

The burial site is usually near a church compound, or in a local cemetery. Given a strong religious conviction of the deceased, the church building may be used as the final resting place for the dead. The deceased may be buried in a location of their choice, or in a place that is meaningful to the family such as near to their ancestors.

Muslim communities follow a common Islamic burial ritual involving bathing and shrouding the body, followed by a funeral prayer. The burial takes place on the same day.

In both urban and rural Ethiopia, a funeral is a significant event that involves the whole community. It is a big public affair which follows strict rules and religious customs. A typical funeral may be attended by thousands of people with a procession followed by a mass gathering at the burial site. A priest cites prayers for the soul of the deceased, and church choir sings to pay their last respects.

The mourning continues for several weeks or months while any remaining distant relatives and acquaintances arrive to offer their condolences. The tent will remain up for at least a week. Neighbors continue making regular visits and sit with the bereaved together on mats on the floor. Some relatives would stay overnight to ensure that the family is not alone.

When paying a visit, acquaintances may remain silent without saying a word. Sitting down in a subdued mood for fifteen minutes would suffice. A conversation is accepted, but laughter is generally considered offensive. What counts is the physical presence to acknowledge the loss of a loved one. Elderly or respected figures may sit close to the bereaving family; say a few consoling words or a prayer, and then exit quietly. Wearing proper attire something dark-colored or black is preferred.

Throughout the bereavement process, female family members shave their heads, wear black scarves “netella” over their heads, and avoid makeups, decorative clothing, and jewelry. Men grow a long beard and wear black outfit for several weeks.
The magnitude of ritual and the duration of bereavement process may be determined by a number of factors including age, and the social and economic status of the deceased. While the death of a small child may be less ceremonial and attended only by close relatives and neighbors, the death of an elderly person may involve protracted rituals.

Unlike the Protestant Christians predominant in southern regions, Orthodox and Catholic Christians celebrate the 40th day to mark the end of intense mourning. It involves a memorial church service followed by a meal shared together by hundreds. A small memorial altar is set up at home with photos of the deceased, a candlelight and flowers. Typically, people come and tell stories, share memories, cheer up the family, help them to release any residual sadness and return to normal life.

The intense initial reaction and the prolonged grief seem to help families to cope with the tragedy. Going through all mourning phases may help families accept the reality, and bring a healing that otherwise not have come without this long journey. Feelings of guilt may arise if they deviate from the norm or fail to express grief as expected.

Besides family and church support mechanisms, the Ethiopian society has traditional associations that operate when there is a death in a community. There are various forms of co-operation based on neighborhood, kinship, religious affiliation or any other grounds. These informal associations assist members during the entire mourning process. They provide not only a dignified time for bereavement, but also lift the financial and logistic burden from the family.

Since there are no formal support groups, many rural families for example in Kembata, Hadiya, and Sidama regions are members of one or more local associations called “serra” (“idir” in Amharic). A typical “serra” may consist of 100 households who meet regularly to pay their dues. A certain amount of money will be given to the bereaving family to cover funeral expenses. Depending on the size and strength of the “serra”, funds may also be used to overcome other hardships such as illness or loss of property.

When someone dies outside the hometown or in other parts of the country, families choose to take the body to their community. They often have to deal with the unpleasant logistics or costly flight back home.

Families living abroad may not react to the loss of relatives, in the same manner, one might expect from a similar event in Ethiopia, but they do grieve in private. They may experience social displacement, and exhibit cultural discrepancy as a result of the adjustment to a new culture or dropping some of the cultural elements pertinent to these customs.

These days, however, traditional death and bereavement practices are fading out, giving way to new ways of mourning. The burial ceremonies are being kept to a fairly reasonable level. This could be due to the difficult economic conditions, limitation of resources, increased adaption of western practices, the emergence of sub-cultures or any complex interplay of factors in the society. However, death and bereavement custom still remain as a part of the very fabric that binds the diverse Ethiopian society together.

Roots Ethiopia is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization working in Africa, specifically helping Southern Ethiopia. Roots Ethiopia supports community identified solutions for job creation and education.

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