The Burial Rites in Igbo Land

The Burial Rites in Igbo Land: A Case Study Of Awgu Local Government Area Of Enugu State

According to Jacob (1977:41) “West African Traditional Religion”, “death is describe as that which happens to man after transient life”. To him, before man is born into this world, he made himself appeared before his deity to receive his own destiny. And when he is born into the world again, he has gone through necessary rites, which continue throughout his life passages, this made the life of man on earth to be interminable, the end which is death is inevitable. He compares life of man with a woman going to market. She must return home hence, the life of man is transitory. With this, death is referred to as returning home, that is saying bye-bye to this world. At death, man ceases to eat, he is snatched away and man to this juncture sees death as an urgent issue of time to review his position here on earth.    

In Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (7th edition), “death means the end of life. The Holy Bible 1Corinthians 15:54-56, Paul described death as that which can only kill the body and not the soul. And to prove this, he says boldly to death:

“Death is swallowed up in victory

O death, where is thy victory;

O death, where is thy stings;

The sting of death is sin;

And the power of sin is the law”   (1Cor. 15:54-56)


Paul in his letter to the Corinthian says at death, while the dead body is buried, the essential person that is the soul passed unto another life, the after life. Death is the “heaven agent”, and come anything, hence, it is inevitable. As we have it in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1829:4) volume 5, “death is the absence of life, the transition from one phase of life to another”. At death, people are afraid of the pain and sufferings associated with it, having in them the fear of the unknown, which is the most outstanding fear in it.

According to Mckenzie (1976:71) “the dictionary of the bible”, “death is accepted as the natural end of man, the idea of which is attained in the fullness f old age with undiminished powers”. The various transitional phrases in the life of man are so much special that we cannot do without knowing some of their importance.

Ray (1976:11) African religion, symbol, ritual and community expresses that:


Person is metaphysically and socially made into new beings with new social roles, new born infants are made into human person. Children are made into adults, man and woman are made into husband and wives deceased people are made into reversed ancestors. Princes are made into kings, seasonal transitions are also marked and celebrated in this way thus, the old year is made into New Year and the season of drought is made into the season of rain.


According to Idowu (1973:25) African traditional religion, death is an inheritance to all living being, a thing of no escape to except for some few as recorded in the Holy Bible or books. If we observe the above quotation, we will notice that the importance of the transitional phase is that at that stage of the process, the initiates are symbolically dead and at the critical period.   People are neither men nor women, neither young nor adults. But, they are momentary anomalies, stripped off their former mode of being, ready to become something new.

The implication of this is that the social system of it were removed to a mystical place where it figures as it system of social values beyond criticism or revision. The transitional phases also creates a bond between temporal processes and the archetypal patterns in order to give form and meaning to human events. They also stand to create a fixed and meaningful transformation in the life cycle of every individual.

2.2 Awgu Beliefs about Death

          Awgu people believe strongly that death person can reincarnate. They believe that the spirit of the deceased can re-enter the womb of another woman either in their house or in the village in order to be reincarnated. This type of spirit is called “Alo-Uwa”, because of this belief, Awgu people use to give special attention to the burial of their deceased. Though, in most cases for those who died in good faith. One can always hear people at times sending messages to those who have gone before as they cry why someone died. They have the belief that the deceased will surely meet with those already gone or those who have died before in a town called “Ala Mmuo” i.e. the town of the dead.

There, they believe the spirit of the dead meets or reincarnate. When a woman is pregnant at the time somebody die in the house, when she deliver and the child happens to resemble the person who died at the same time of her pregnancy, there belief is that the person has reincarnates through the woman. The belief is that, when a person died, immediately after the burial, his spirit will leave for that city of the dead “Ala-mmuo” often at times one will hear people saying, that man whom they said has died sometimes ago, is said to have been in another place or town.

Due to this strong belief in the life here after, deceased are often bury within the homestead, if at all he/she died in a normal way. The belief is that they are still living in spirit among the people of the house. In fact, Awgu people use to feed their deceased (ancestors) even in the grave with a special food known as “Ikpalu Ndi-oche Ini” made out of “Ji and Mkpuru Akwu “. Due to this belief, the first harvest of this seeds and new yam will be taken by nobody, until “Ikpalu Ndi-Iche ini” have been made for the deceased or on the priest “Onye la eji ali” or some elders of the village.

2.3 Meaning of Rites or Rituals

          According to Mbiti (1986:18) introduction to African religion rite or ritual is a set form of carrying out a religions action or ceremony. It is a means of communicating of religions significance, through words, symbols and action. Therefore, a ritual word embodies a belief or beliefs. The ritual word is powerful since it is spoken in seriousness and solemnity and it is repeated every time that ritual is done. There are innumerable rituals and ceremonies in African religion. But there are no sacred books in African religion. Instead, it is a living religion which is written in the lives of the people. Africans celebrate life, therefore, they celebrate their religion, they dance it, they sing it, and they act it. A lot of the visible demonstration of African religion occurs in rituals and festivals. These embody what people believe, what they value, and what they wish to apply in daily life. Though ritual, people not only acts their religion but communicate it to the younger generation.       Death is sorrowful. It is also important; there are therefore, many complex and even long rituals and ceremonies associated with death.

According to Mbiti (1986:71) introduction to African religion, in every African society people are very sensitive to what is done when there is death in the family. Death marks a physical separation of the individual from other human being. This is a radical change and the funeral rites and ceremonies are intended to draw attention to that permanent separation. Meticulous care is taken to fulfill the funeral rites and to avoid causing any offence to the departed. This is not done for unknown strangers, for thieves, murderers, withes and other trouble makers in the community or for those who have died abnormal death.

2.4 Autochthonous Funeral Rites

Basdem (1966:42) observes how burial rites are performed among the Awka district. The ceremony takes place only after sunrise, for when the sun’s rays are shining from directly overhead a palm-frond (igu) is spread along the ground; the idea of this is that, by placing the leaf between the corpse and the ground, pollution of the land may be avoided. Two Ada’s (daughters) are then commanded to bring two small pots of water. They stand one on the right and the other on the left of the corpse. They dip their hands into the water and make passes over the face and continue right down the body to the feet. This is repeated until it has been done four times. Camwood dye is next taken and a four-fold passing over the face and body is made similarly to that done with the water. This follows a four-fold passing with razor (Aguba). The whole constitute the symbolic for of (a) washing (b) anointing (c) Shaving and all combined ceremonial cleansing.

Talbot (1967:35) notes that shooting of cannons and guns shows the ghost that it is a great warrior who comes amongst them. The sacrifices are given to propitiate the jujus. Since the big juju (Awome-ka-so) forbade the killing of men, they offer animals. If they did not make these big ceremonies, the dead man would not have such a high rank among the ghosts. It always ruins the house if the ceremonies are not carried out because the ghosts are vexed. Man and women shaved their hair in sign of bereavement, after whilst their hair is allowed to grow for ten months i.e., the native year. If a chief dies, not only his widows but sons, daughters and in former days personal slaves must also shave.

In case of poverty the death of a king is not announced at once, but concealed from the town fold until it is possible to get together all things necessary for the funeral rites. They also observed that women who died in childbirth, that no funeral rites is accorded to them. In such a case, the corpse must be carried forth at night, with all secrecy, through the back of the house, and thrown away in the bad bush, as is also done with still born children and suicides Basden (1966:51) and Talbot (1976:70). Basden (1971:25) observes that among the Igbo it was customary to put to death one or more slaves to accompany a chief or a leading social figure to the grave. Once of the victims was made to carry a bag in which the personal treasures of the deceased were placed such as his own cup, snuff box, kola nuts.

Onwuejeogwu (1992:16) observes that there is a mortuary ritual which starts when the man is dying. This is the final rite of passage. It is intended to purify him and to separate the good totem spirit which goes into the totem hole from the bad spirit called Mokoi, which goes into the bush. The body is buried and after several months it is exhumed and the flesh removed from the bones which are placed in a wooden coffin and left in the bush. This for the Murngin life is in stages, a person moves from a lower to a higher stage, depending on the ability to socialize and adjust to the social order, and all this is mirrored in rituals.

If a man dies without a proper burial rite, he will trouble his family, livestock will die and the trading is unfortunate. Such a man can never be Chi to anybody and will therefore have no Nwachi to sacrifice to him; he will be esteemed foolish and not fit to associate with the other dead but treated as a poor man and one of no consequence Talbot (1962:70). This view was supported by Qurcoompome (1987:41) when he said that death stands between the world of human beings and the world of the spirits, between the visible and the invisible. It is regarded as a transition from one state of existence to another. It is a passage from this earthly existence to another. In view of this, great care is taken in performing the mortuary rites.

Nadel (1954:14) reports that among the Nupe of Nigeria, old men and family heads, and old women are buried in their sleeping hurts, beneath the floor, and a sacrifice is performed over the grave, everyone else is buried without special ceremony in the space between the huts, or by the compound wall, or perhaps in a disposed roofless hut. In many communities body orientation is in the direction which the deceased must travel in their journey to the land of the dead. Body orientation among the Marinak of Madagascar has nothing to do with the ancestral home of the dead. In some groups the direction faced by the corpse in the grave has nothing to do with the person’s economic social status in life but among some Igbo groups such may reflect the sex of the old or high social status Rose (1922:14), Ucko (1969:71) and Okpoko (1987:80).

In Ghana and Nigeria, some ethnic groups place the male on his right facing east and the female on the left facing the west. Men face east towards the rising sun as to be up and away at down; their wives face west to be ready with the evening meal on the hunters return Meek (1925:29) and Ratry (1959:61).

Hart and Pulling (1960:25) maintains that the most frequent and most important Tiwi ceremonies were the mourning ceremonies and they come in three sizes; small, medium and large depending on age, sex and status of the dead person. The mourning ceremony, which drew the crowds, was not held until sometimes after the burial. The more important the deceased the longer it takes after his or her burial to prepare for the funeral. Babies are not given any funeral rites, but children were given small funerals, held within a month or so after the death and people present mainly members of the local household, young and adult men and all adult women had funerals at medium size and old men had the biggest funerals.

The mourning ceremonies, though prolonged for several days of constant dancing and singing were rather dull and monotonous, considered as ceremonial, the gaily coloured post are created right on the grave and it served as a sort of central altar. Every senior male sang and dance in turn his own dance and the rest of the men standing in a large circle acted as a major chorus. In addition, there were a few performances that were special to the fact of death, including the grand female of every morning ceremony. This was done to drive the spirits away from the grave and thus end the mourner’s state Hart and Pulling, (1960:60).

Lessa (1966:15) observes that among the Hlithi-Atoli Island of Mogmug that funeral rites varied according to circumstances in any event, the whole village observes a ten days period of respect, when everybody must comfort himself with the appropriate decorum. Mourning is more stringent for close relatives; however, they observed certain practices for five full lunar months. No sexual relation, not entering the sacred garden or eating of food grown on it, no entering the men’s house and men and women must cut off all their hair. When close relatives have ended their five month period of mourning, a rite called pay-stone is held to reward those who rendered services in connection with the funeral.

The importance of rituals as a means of defining office and thus asserting the role the office holder should perform and status, which the office confers on him. This fact is brought home in the funeral rites of the Igbo people. For the Igbo people believe that social status can be transferred from the human world to the spirit world. Mortuary ceremonies to them therefore serve as a way of reasserting the status of the Igbo dead in the world of ancestors, Nimiro (1962:11).

Nweke (1992:19) maintains that the Obokwe people attach much importance to funeral rite just like any other Igbo society. A kind of funeral ceremony known as ipuahia (appearing in the market square) which ends their mourning period. This ceremony is performed to fully establish the deceased persons in the ancestral world. And this enables him to possess assets and unlimited amount of wealth in the spirit world and possibly reincarnate to life with potentiality to wealth. Although different African peoples have different standards for measuring who qualifies as an ancestor, it seems that dominant rests on full burial rites given to the deceased by his living relatives. It is only when the dead is accorded full burial rites that he will take his place in the company of the ancestors. This starts with burying the corpse in accordance with the custom of the community after which all the funeral rites will be celebrated. If any or all these are not done the spirit of the dead cannot reach the ancestral land instead it will keep on hovering around, Madu (1997:63).

Wilson (1931:29) maintains that in Nyakyusa burial dance is traditionally a dance of war led by young men dressed in special costumes of ankle bells and cloth skirts, often holding spears and leaping wildly about. Women do not dance, but some young women move about among the dancing youths, calling the war cry and swinging their hips in a rhythmic fashion. The noise and excitement grow and there are no signs of grief. Nyakyusa men say they dance to honor the dead. If the dead is a woman, they claim to honor the fact she gave birth to warriors.

Funerals ceremonies customs are the means by which the society acts upon its individual member and keeps alive in their mind a certain system of sentiments. Without the ceremonials those sentiment would not exist, and without them the social organization in its actual form could not exist, Radicliff-Brown (1964:10). Funeral are occasions for avoiding people or holding parties, for fighting or having sexual orgies, for weeping or laughing in a thousand different combinations Mctealf and Huntington (1991:13).

According to Modo and Essoh (2002:14) funeral rites in Ibibio culture, is regarded as an occasion to honor the deal man where he would be properly situated in the land of the dead and wish this ideal man to come back as the same achieving person when reincarnated. Each dead is rewarded for being an example of what is desirable or denied certain honor in order to prevent a repeat of the displayed life patter in his reincarnation. The carnival type of festivities after the interment of the corpse is a luminal rite. The gloom of mourning is suddenly turned into a show of joy. The preoccupation of daily life are laid aside to glory in the achievement of the deceased. The whole celebration has cathartic effect on the community, helping it to tide over the fear and gloom of death with the assurance that death may have struck a heavy blow but it has in no way overcome the community, Mbiti (1971:18).

Onwubiko (2002:71) observes that at the end of the funeral rites, foods and drinks are left in the grave for the dead for a period of one month. It is believed that during this time, his ghost is haunting his compound and neighborhoods before its final departure to the spirit land. After the ceremony, his close relatives will remain at home for twelve days, after which they resume normally daily chores. However, the mourning period for his wife extends up to a period of year and is marked by various rituals. He goes on to maintain that funeral rites focus not only on the deceased but also on his surviving relatives. They concern not only the society of the living but also the spirit land of the ancestors. For the deceased, mortuary rites make it possible for his spirit to reach the spirit land happily and satisfied, hence the rites of incorporation feature prominently. There are elaborate funeral rites and ceremonies, which reinforces the, believe that death is only a transition. Depending on the status of the deceased, there may be drumming, dancing, firing of muskets and guns and the pouring of libation as part of the funeral rites. In many African communities there is the practice of second burial to ensure that no ritual element has been left out, so that the danger of misfortune brought about by the displeasure of the deceased many be averted, Ugwu and Ugwueye (2004:52).

According to Afianmagbon (2002:74) funeral ceremony entails interment or funeral rites which start with the bathing and dressing of the deceased by the children and some members of the family. The eldest son of the deceased is asked to present the following for the interment, a gin that is prepared locally, a native soap made of herbs, traditional regalia, and a kola-nut. He also observes that after this the first son is asked be the family when he intends the actual funeral rites called the second burial. Eight days is used for the common man and fourteen days for the royal family. Proper mortuary rites is not performed for the wicked ones, those that died of abominable diseases especially contagious ones like leprosy, small pox swollen belly, they are abhorred, however, to purify such a person for the next life a native doctor is invited to take away the abominable diseases.

For mortuary rites to be carried out many things are needed like goat, snuff which must be enough for every woman present no matter their number, ripe palm fruit and unripe palm kernel is needed, kegs of palm-wine are also provided, tubers of yam, Ogu (1984:7), Onuigbo (2001:9). Mortuary protocol is performed to enable the widow who must have been indoors for four months to start coming out. The ritual consists of activities which must be performed before the main activity Onuigbo (2001:9). Nweke (1992:41) maintains that funeral rites vary with both the status of the deceased and his or her relationship with different categories of mourners. The more important the dead, the more elaborate the rites given to the person, the closer the relation through blood and marriage, the greater the stereotyped interest demanded by the spirit of mourners.

Nnamchi (2004:32) notes that funeral rites are preceded by three different activities which includes, Nri-nchi-agodo, Iwaji, Ije Nkwo. Ije Nkwo is the most important aspect of burial rite. Nri-Achi-agodo is a kind of invitation, in which foods are being prepared for the invitation of Adanwanyi without which the ceremony will not continue. This kind of invitation is done by the sons of the deceased, the food preparation is done in an ascending order, from the youngest sons of the deceased to the eldest son, and it is at the turn of the eldest son that the date of the rites is being fixed and the day for the burial rite must be on Nkwo market day. Ije Nkwo is a very crucial aspect of funeral rite and this is a situation whereby members of the deceased family go for their first outing.


2.5 The Disposal of the Body

          There are rituals concerning the preparation of the corpse for disposal. In some places, it is washed either with water or with water and traditional medicines. In other areas, it is showed and their nails are cut off. There are places where oil and butter is put through the mouth and nostrils, ears and other body openings. Skins leather of an animal can also be used to cover the whole body of a dead person and it should be skin of an animal, the person killed during his time like Python, Tiger, Lion, Elephant, Zebra etc closes are the most common one to be used by everybody and should be white. But black clothes, cotton or leaves are used to cover the corpse and the whole body is in some places anointed with glue or other oil. These can only be used when somebody died mysteriously but are no longer practicing now at this present generation. For all these preparations, there are ritual leaders and elders in every village. Some individuals are not allowed to touch or come near to the corpse in case misfortune should befall them or the family. These are usually the children, pregnant women or suspected witches. The preparation for burials may be done ritually or without formality.

Generally, the disposal of the body takes place the same or the following day. This is mainly because of the tropical heat, which makes the body decomposed fast. In most part of Africa, burial is the usual means of disposing the body of a dead person. It may take place at the backyard of one of the houses in the village, in a family burial place or at the original place of birth. The grave may be rectangular, oval, curve like or even a big pot made for that purpose.

Formally, other methods of disposal were used in some place such as throwing the body in the bush to be eaten by animals and birds, this can only happen if a witch, murderer or a person who defiles the land and refuses to appeal to the gods died, his body will be thrown to the evil forest. And throwing also into a running stream or river or keeping it in a small house nearby so that it would decompose completely until the bare skeleton was left. This can only happen if the dead person is dragging the land he build houses with somebody and it happened that he died for the sake of the land he can only be buried in that very particular house/land or in a small house near the land so that his spirit will be guiding the house or land and the other person will never go there again or he dies. But this is no longer practicing again.

2.6The Burial of Belongings with the Body

          It is the custom in many parts of Africa to bury some belongings with the body, such as spear, bows and arrows, stools, snuffs, foodstuffs, beads, ornaments, money, tools and domestic utensils. Some of these things might be placed on the grave afterwards. Formally, in some places, servants and wives of kings or other rich people are also buried with the body. The belief behind this custom is that he departed needs weapons to defend himself along the way to the next world or food to eat on the journey. Wives and servants to keep him company when he reaches there and other properties to use so that he would not arrive empty handed or remain poor.

According to Mbiti (1986:21) introduction to African religion, the greatest treasures ever discovered in a burial place where those of king Tutankhamen of Egypt who died in B.C. 1352. These were discovered in his tomb in upper Egypt nearly 3,300 years later in 1922. They comprised jewels, furniture, shrines and portraits masks all covered with gold worth on inestimable amount of money. Many other treasures and valuables have been buried with people all over Africa. Most perish within a short time but others may survive the process of rotting, weathering and rusting for many years. Precisely why the supposed owners do not remove and take them away with them to that other world, we may never know. But they do not seem to mind if someone among the living helps himself to their grave.

Various rites are performed at the actual burial or other disposal of the body. These rites are intended to send off the departed peacefully, to serve his links with the living and to ensure that normal life continues among the survivors.

References: History of Angola VI: Politics, Art and Music in Angolan Nationalism (1960s-1980s)

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