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Death & Burial Project

Death & Burial Project

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Another moment that demands precision is internment. Unlike the European custom a
deceased Shona is not just left in the grave (kusiyiwa muguva) but buried with all the rites and
ceremonies. Though different Shona tribes differ in ritual of internment, one thing is made
clear: the need for its exact performance. Much of this ceremony seems to suggest the soul is
still within the body and therefore at the moment of internment one needs to know how that
particular person is buried, when, where and the type of servitors to be buried with the person.

a. The cooling ceremony

On arrival at the grave, the stretcher bed was laid on the right side of the grave, facing the
village. Facing the village meant that the deceased would have a good last look of the village
before vanishing into the world of the ancestors. A mat, made out of reeds (rupasa), was then
spread in the grave upon which the corpse would be laid. This was not omitted, as it was
believed that the deceased would complain that s/he had not been provided with a proper bed.
Let it be realised that the mat belongs to traditional Shona society and was the most decent
thing to sleep on: 'tsapata rukukwe hazvienzane nokurara pasi (Even a badly worn out mat is

better to sleep on than sleeping on bare floor)‘, runs a Shona proverb. The mat was used on

very solemn occasions as a sign of respect. Without the knowledge of this traditional
significance of the mat a modern Shona will not comprehend why a beautiful made coffin
with magnificent drapery is laid on a dirty and worn out reed mat.
Some personal objects of the deceased and the stretcher upon which the corpse was
carried were thrown into the grave. In some cases this would include bits of planks from
which the coffin was made. Also, the handles of the hoes that were used to dig the grave were
thrown into the grave. The hoes themselves were 'cleansed' by flames of fire. The reason
behind this process was that what had been used in a burial operation must be buried with the
deceased.

It is an integral part of the Shona burial to put some weeds into the grave. Depending upon
the areas, the weeds that are normally used are mahapa (flower gold), garadziva (water lilies),
nhokwe (scirpus inclinatus-a river grass) and muswowabeto (asparagus fern).97

These are soft
and green plants that thrive where there is water or moisture. These weeds are placed in the
grave near the head and feet of the deceased. The head and the feet, according to Shona
anatomy, are considered as the principal parts of the body. What is the purpose of placing
weeds into the grave? The water lilies and the river-grass are meant to act as coolants,
donhodzo, to the spirit of the dead.98

As water is cool, donhodzo is expected to calm down the

97

G. Broderick, ―Description of a Pagan Funeral,‖ NADA (1956), 61.

98

Broderick, ―Description of a Pagan Funeral,‖61.

33

temper of the deceased's spirit if it comes home to visit the living. Since water lilies and the
river-grass are soft and tender, so when the spirit of the deceased comes home it is expected to
be lenient and merciful as well. It signifies mildness. Therefore, the soft nature of these weeds
is what the spirit of the deceased is asked, through symbolism, to adopt.99
Michael Bourdillon reckons that the idea of 'cooling' is common in Shona funeral rites and

―occurs in situations which are with spirits and in which tension is felt‖.100

When a person
dies the new spirit becomes part of the community's spiritual world. The spirit, says
Bourdillon, would be considered dangerous and unpredictable by the community since
nobody knows exactly how it is going to respond to the new world and what grudges it may
have against the community.101

Thus, it becomes absolutely necessary to 'cool' the spirit and

to prevent it from tormenting the community. In his own words:

In the social upheaval caused by death in the community, calm is a benefit, and calm
is essential for the spirit of the deceased which is believed to have passed from the life
of the living community to a completely novel existence in the community of the
spirits. The presumed readiness of the deceased to use his newly acquired spiritual
powers and his possible touchiness after the upheaval is a powerful sanction for
performing the rituals properly.102

Paul Gundani puts this succinctly when he wrote:

What this signifies is that as long as the spirit feels cooled it does not get anxious to go
back to the living members for anything. A cool place is good for resting. It is only a
hot and uncomfortable place that the spirit would be keen to leave. (Note that this heat
— cold paradigm applies especially to mashave. Whenever they possess a medium
their first request is for cold water or beer because the place of their origin is scorching
hot) (Gundani, 1995: 11).103

However, Holleman‘s research findings do not support Gundani‘s assertion that ‗cooling‘

of the spirit has something to do with heat. In his own words:

The term kutonhodza is also used in other ritual actions in which there is a question of
a spiritual tension. .... As far as I understand, the need for a cooling agent is only felt
in situations directly associated with midzimu (ancestral spirits) or Mwari (‗God‘). ....
Logically speaking, the need for cooling agents would presuppose the existence of a
mystical element of ‗heat‘ in the situations outlined above. On this point, however, my
enquiries remained inconclusive. All my informants, while stressing the need for
‗cooling off‘ in bona and other rituals, refused to subscribe to the supposition that
there should therefore be ‗heat‘ to be ‗cooled‘. They were puzzled when this

suggestion was put to them, but stood their ground. They went so far as to say (with
reference to homicide cases) that the cooling action countered the threat of spiritual
‗anger‘, but were not prepared to associate anger with heat. Their final answer- ‗there

99

F. Holleman, Accommodating the Spirit Among some North-Eastern Shona tribes (1953), 37-40; Edwards,

"From Birth to Death: Notes on the Natives of the Mrewa District, Southern Rhodesia,‖ 40.

100

M. Bourdillon, The Shona Peoples (1975), 235-237.

101

Bourdillon, The Shona Peoples, 237.

102

Bourdillon, The Shona Peoples, 238.

103

P. Gundani, "Rituals surrounding death among the Shona peoples," Mukai (1995), 11.

34

is nothing (in these situations) that can be considered warm or hot; we cool off (the
grave, etc.) because this is the way we have always been doing it according to our
custom‘-left the whole concept of kutonhodza strangely incomplete.104

Apart from having the idea of water as a cooling agent, the Shona look at water from another
perspective. Water, in Shona culture, is primarily life giving. Expiating on this concept,
Aschwanden observed that, "Water is regarded as the "origin" and spring of life ... Water,
therefore, is closely connected with life, birth and procreation".105

Thus, the burial of children
in wet ground is also connected with life since water symbolises the amniotic fluid of the
mother's womb. The pouring of beer (water) on the grave of the deceased is meant to have the
same effect.106

Since the water lilies and the river-grass get nourishment and life from the
water in which they live, so the people wish their deceased relative a happy existence in the
land of the ancestors. So the act of putting water-lilies into the grave is a life giving process
for the 'west' is devoid of peace, happiness and, therefore, real life.
According to Edwards, among the Zezuru, the body was buried with the head to the north,

facing the setting sun.107

Bullock confirms this northern direction but says that the body was

laid facing the north, the direction of tribal origin.108

In his analysis of the VaShangwe
ceremonies in the Gokwe area, Powell said that the head was laid pointing towards the
west.109

Regarding the geographical direction 'west', this concept is very important indeed.
The 'west' to the Africans is the locus of death and the place where everything evil takes
place. It is also the habitat of the ancestors and all those who have gone before. It seems to me
that Africans somehow connect life with the sun. Among the Shona, birth and death are
connected with the position of the sun. In Africa where the sun sets is where life sets. As
Powell wrote: ―The only reason that can be given for us is that the dead should follow the sun,
it has been handed down by tradition and no departure from this practice would be

tolerated‖.110

b. Throwing dust

A Shona burial ceremony today cannot be completed without the ritual of throwing dust into
the grave. According to my own research, the traditional Shona burial ceremony does not
have the act of throwing dust into the grave (kukanda ivhu). This is a novelty.111

Among the
Shona it was seen as a sign of disrespect of the dead to lay the corpse directly on the ground
or to throw soil on it. The deceased was not supposed to come in contact with the ground.
Doing this was absolutely deplorable. That is why some people put a sleeping mat under the
coffin and flat stones on top of it before covering the grave with soil.112

The Budja and the
Korekore, scoop out a small cave or niche at one side of the grave and, after the body has
been placed in it, stones are arranged to close the cave. The Shona have different reasons for

104

Holleman, Accommodating the Spirit Among some North-Eastern Shona tribes, 38.

105

H. Aschwanden, Karanga Mythology. (1989), 193-194.

106

Gundani, "Rituals surrounding death among the Shona peoples," 11.

107

Edwards, "From Birth to Death: Notes on the Natives of the Mrewa District, Southern Rhodesia,‖ 36.

108

Bullock, The MaShona, 268.

109

Powell, ―Notes on the ―Kutaya,‖ ―KuKomba‖ and ―Kugara Nhaka‖ Ceremonies of the VaShankwe,‖ 14.

110

H. Kuper, "The Shona", in The Shona and Ndebele of Southern Rhodesia. (1955), 36.

111

B. S. Muchemwa, ―Kukanda Ivhu: The significance of ―dust‖ in a Christian Burial,‖ Crossroads (2001), 22.

112

Muchemwa, ―Kukanda Ivhu: The significance of ―dust‖ in a Christian Burial,‖ 22.

35

carrying out this ritual of throwing dust. Some say it is the final greeting to the dead person,
others do it to cast away evil and misfortune (kurasa rushanga) and others do it to show that
they have nothing to do with the death of the deceased.113

Others say the bereaved may fall ill
if they neglect the custom. At one funeral a certain man said that, ―One feels weak after the
death of a relative and this is remedied by pouring soil into the grave‖. Some people did not

attach any mystical efficacy to the act when asked about it. They thought that it was just an
expression of love for the deceased. If one did not throw soil into the grave it would appear as
if one did not care and was not touched by the death of a relative.
The importance of this ritual is illustrated by the fact that relatives and friends of the
deceased who did not attend the funeral are expected to visit the grave and perform the ritual.
This is done either by throwing soil on the grave or by placing a stone on it. A member of the
deceased relatives, usually a male, accompanies a person visiting the grave after the funeral.

One of the reasons given is that somebody had to accompany the person ‗to show him/her the
right grave‘, or s/he must have one ‗to show him/her how the body lies, in which direction the
head lies because the soil or the stone must be placed on the head‘. Other people think that
anyone visiting the grave after burial must be accompanied just in case ‗s/he bewitches the
grave and turns the deceased against his/her relatives‘. One informant said no misfortune
would result but commented that a person who has come to place a stone should not just go
alone.

Immediately after the ritual of throwing the dust is completed, people take turns to say a
few words about the deceased. Usually these are people who claim to be very close to the
deceased. There is something that is striking or interesting about the graveside speeches
among the Shona today. I remember one day burying a prominent member of a certain parish
in Chitungwiza, about 20 kilometres outside Harare. At the grave about ten short speeches
were made about the deceased. After sometime I realised that none of the speakers (vatauri)

was saying anything at all except trite platitudes on the general occasion of a person‘s death. I

reflected that if the name of the deceased were left out of the speeches, they would be
perfectly well suited to a similar occasion with another name: (1) Rufu rwake rwauya
tisingafungire
(His/her death came unexpectedly); (2) Tarasikirwa zvikuru nemunhu
watainzwanana naye zvakanyanya
(We have been robbed of a person with whom we had
good relations); (3) Hatina kumbonzwa kuti atukana nemunhu (S/he never had problems with
anyone); (4) Aida munhu wose (S/he loved everybody); (5) Vanga raasiya richanetsa
kuzadzikisa
(The void s/he left will be difficult to fill); (6) Nhingi famba zvakanaka (N. go in
peace). I was left with no idea whatever of what those ten people or so thought of the dead

man. No one was prepared to break the ‗formula‘ and talk about personal intimacy.

In some areas, women are dismissed just before the grave is filled with soil. The reason
for this dismissal is that there could be a witch among the women present at the funeral. As
the grave is being filled up, they may take some of the soil of the grave with them. With this
soil they might bewitch the grave and turn the deceased against his/her relatives. They may
also take the spirit of the dead away with them and do what they like with it. After the body
has been laid in the grave according to traditional custom, the grave is then sealed with

113

Edwards, "From Birth to Death: Notes on the Natives of the Mrewa District, Southern Rhodesia,‖ 36.

36

stonewall and then filled with soil. However, no soil should fall directly on top of the body. It
is seen as lack of respect to do so. The soil should go on top of the stone instead.114
When the grave has been filled up a there is prayer that is said before the people leave the
place. In some areas, the father of the deceased would take a calabash with mealie-meal or
millet meal mixed with water, places it near the headstone, kneeling down, he would address

the ancestors saying: ―Keep the child that has come to you‖. After this prayer the contents of

the calabash are poured over the headstone and the calabash itself is destroyed and placed on
top of the mound. After the whole ceremony some branches of trees like mukarati or
munhondo (burkea africana), chizhuzhu or musosawafa (gymnosporoia senegalensis) or
mutarara (gardenia spatulifolia) are placed on the grave.115

The grave and the whole place is
swept, so that footprints will be visible should a witch come to 'steal' the spirit of the
deceased.

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