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

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*The primary reference for information on this page is Margaret Thompson Drewel's Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Drewel did field work in Nigeria during the 1980s, where she studied Yoruba traditions.

 

 There are many different funerals in Yoruba society, but Isinku is the funeral everyone hopes to have; it is the funeral given to one who has died of old age. This funeral involves seven days of rituals (etutu) to successfully send the deceased's spirit to its  the ancestral realm. It is made clear in Yoruba funerals that the spirit does not fade away in death. There is an expectation that the spirit will eventually return and express itself in a newborn child. So in a way, a funeral marks the ending and a beginning of life. Since the Isinku is a very sacred ritual and such a great expense, the family sets a date far in advance so that they have enough time to prepare. Therefore the funeral may occur anywhere from a month to up to a year after the initial burial. Yoruba funerals are week-long processes. Ojo Isinku is the first and most important day of funerary ritual. The third day, Itaoku, is reserved for feasting and celebration. The fourth day, Irenoku, is the day of play and the seventh day, Ijeku, marks the end of the ritual celebration. The week of ritual is seen as part of a sacrifice to the deceased.

 
 
Burial:  Burial rituals are exclusive to family and Osugbo society members- the society of Yoruba elders. The Osugbo are included because they are closest to the ancestors, and possess vast amounts of knowledge and power within the community. The ritual carried out by the Osugbo is the deceased’s initiation into the group of ancestors. After a sacrifice is made, the corpse and coffin are carefully washed and prepared. The body is laid on a special mat which will serve a ritual purpose later on. Then the body is transferred to the coffin and the lid is shut. The eldest child of the deceased knocks on the coffin three times with the cosmetologist’s staff, "dispatches the soul of the deceased" (Drewel 41). Finally, the cosmetologist sees that the coffin is placed in the grave completing internment.

 

Ojo Isinku: During Ojo Isinku, the family collects money from relatives to buy gin and food for all the funeral guests. The first public ceremony is a spectacle of play and dance. Musicians are hired to accompany the relatives of the deceased around town as they sing and dance in honor of the family. The more play taking place throughout the village shows the social importance of the deceased. Therefore, the more play the higher the status.

 

Drewel spoke with a Yoruba man, Ositola, who explained, “They think dancing and enjoying after the death will depict the deceased’s achievements on earth, how he or she was able to behave to the community…It is not that they are extravagant. They do it for a meaning. If hey don’t do it, then the deceased who is joining the ancestors will be concerned and unhappy- and be wandering-because he has not been remembered. The deceased will have to answer queries [that is from the ancestors]. “Why are you not properly initiated, or sent to us? Perhaps you have not performed well, have you not achieved well? If you have performed well, why is posterity forgetting you?” The only way for us on earth to judge the deceased is to know how much honor was given to him by his descendents” (Drewel 42).

 

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