To the Grave and Beyond:
A look at funeral rituals and traditions from various West African cultures

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*The information from this page was gathered from Judith A. Vollbrecht's,  Structure and Communitas in an Ashanti Village: The Role of Funerals. The information in Vollbrecht's book is drawn from her field work in Ghana, while studying the funeral rituals in the  Ashanti village of Donyina.

Death and Solidarity: The ritual of the Ashanti funeral is significant for the entire community, rather than just the individual who has died. Of course the rite is most important to the family, though. Mourning the deceased is a way of respecting the place the deceased held in the family lineage. The female members of the family are with the individual while he is about to pass, in order to pour water on his throat for the journey that he is about to embark on. The kra, or undying spirit, needs this water to “climb the mountain” into the world of the ancestors (Vollbrecht 14).

When the death is announced, all adults in the village begin an eight day fast to honor the sacred ritual as a group event. As soon as the head of the lineage is informed of the death, the men of the family gather to plan the funeral and burial. After the chiefs and sub-chiefs are informed, the ceremonial mourning officially begins. Family members cry out in grief, disseminating the news to the rest of the community. Messengers are sent out to inform family living outside of the community so that they may attend. The women of the family lead mourning through the streets, while the men continue making arrangements.

Burial: Members of the mother's side of the family are in charge of washing the corpse. Using a sponge, soap and warm water, the hair and body are washed and dried three times. (In Ashanti tradition, the same is done for a newborn infant. This reflects the strong ties  between birth and death.) The body is dressed and laid in state on a bed. The clothing the corpse is dressed in varies with age, wealth and religion. For example, a member of the royal family is covered in kente cloth, one cigarette is placed between his lips and another between his fingers. Then a coin is placed on his forehead. In non-royal burials the objects or symbols most important to the individual are placed with him in death. Therefore women would be buried with their pots and men with their bows and quivers.

Mourning: After the body is prepared, visitors arrive to offer condolences to the grieving family. Close relatives and friends pull up chairs and stay with the body, expressing their solidarity.  Members of the man’s social group gather to act out their trade in front of the corpse before the burial. This ritual is performed to assure the deceased that his kinsmen will carry on without him. It is also their chance to ask him to do take care of them when he becomes a spirit.