Funeral Customs- A Cultural Comparison

We’ve never really given much thought to funeral customs. When you think about it, though, it is one ritual that even though you may not be practicing the religion you grew up with, chances are the funerals you are used to, reflect that religion. They certainly do for us- Teresa grew up Jewish and Gary, Methodist. It seems as though funerals, more than any other rite, have maintained strong elements from that faith’s history. Take the Jewish custom of burying within 24 hours then sitting shiva for 7 days (receiving visitors and saying prayers). The reason is simple. bodies deteriorate quickly in the desert and since Jews don’t believe in embalming (traditionally that is), it was important to bury the body quickly. The next week is then set aside for remembrance, prayers for whatever comes after, and support for the bereaved family.

OK- so why this topic and why now? This past weekend we had the opportunity to experience the one part of the traditional Botswana funeral that we had not experienced in our two previous funeral experiences. And, what we found most interesting are the differences from what we are both used to. Basically, the process is the exact opposite of the Jewish custom even though the environment is as hot and dry as the original Palestine.  We also learned that customs vary by tribe and therefore by region. This most recent funeral was someone from Gary’s school. The school provided a bus for about 40 of us to travel 9 hours (north of Francistown on the Zimbabwe border) each way (in 100 degrees without air conditioning we might add). We went up Saturday and home on Sunday, but more of that to come.

So, here is what we have learned is the custom:

When a person dies, the body is taken to a funeral home where it remains until the night before the burial. Burials are usually on Saturday or Sunday.  Typically, there is about a week between the death and the burial (although in 2 funerals this past weekend the person died on Monday or Tuesday and the burial was on Sunday. Yes, we had two funerals in one day but more on that later). Gary’s school head’s father died in December and in that case there were about 10 days between the death and the burial since family members were coming from very far away (the granddaughter of the deceased was in England). Why is this time important? Well, every day before the burial, there are two prayer services- one in the early morning and one in the early evening. And, anyone and everyone in the village is welcome at either, both, all, some. This means feeding everyone each time- this is often just phaphata (bread) and tea but it adds up and it is tiring for the family! Luckily the tradition of extended families helps  There are brown tents and chairs to rent (white tents for weddings). Not sure where all the plates and cups come from but rarely is plastic (or foam) used.

Then, on the night before the funeral the body of the deceased arrives during the evening service. The coffin is usually kept in the sitting room where the family stays with it. Everyone else is outside. After the prayers (it is now about 6:30) there is a break until 9 pm when the overnight vigil begins.  At the one this last weekend the family sat vigil until midnight then family and friends were expected to take over. Our group was given an unused house to rest in- women in one room, men in another. We brought our camping mats and rested (slept) from about 9 to 2. Then we both happened to wake up and went over to where the vigil was. Not sure who was inside but outside a large group of about 100 were praying and singing. As we rested, you could hear the singing throughout the night. Since we didn’t understand the prayers we only lasted about an hour. (Turns out that wasn’t totally our fault- most of the prayers were in Kalanga which is a local language. Not that Setswana would have made a huge difference but still….). We rested again until 4 then everyone was getting up to bathe and get ready for the burial. This is a good place to mention that dress for funerals is very proscribed. Women wear dresses below the knee and cover head with a kerchief and shoulders with a shawl or large scarf- no matter how hot it is! Men wear long sleeves with a vest or a coat that would cover long or short sleeves.

By 5:30 2-300 people had gathered. More prayers and a funeral service with eulogies and all. This included an interesting section where the card were read out loud from all the flowers that were to be placed on the grave (most of them were plastic). Since several of these were in English, we finally understood something- if we could hear it.  At some point the family all went in the house to view the deceased, then the open coffin was brought out and everyone filed past. We have been told that the reason for this is so that everyone knows the right person is in the coffin and that they are truly dead. Around 7 am we all loaded up in various vehicles and went to the cemetery. By now there must have been about 400 people and there was another burial going on right next to ours. We couldn’t hear or see much but there was a grave already dug (no backhoes in sight) and after more prayers in Kalanga, or so we were told, several people began filling in the grave by hand. All during this rather long process the singing continued.

Graves in Botswana usually include a canopy made of a mesh type material- like a heavy duty screen- and attached to a metal frame. There is a metal plate with the deceased’s birth, death and burial date on it. In glancing at some of the other graves, it brought home the severity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 2000’s. Many people between 20-35 so one can only assume the cause of death.

After the burial, everyone goes back to the house where the younger women have been preparing food all night over an open fire. (Teresa asked about helping but was told that older women don’t cook or serve but sometimes get to clean the pots- luckily the bus had to go before she got to enjoy that chore). So at about 8:30 in the morning you get served a meal of phaletshe (  from corn and pretty flavorless but looks like cream of rice or grits that have been sitting for a while ),or bogobe (from sorghum like cream of wheat but thicker and no salt), samp (from corn but round and semi-soft and also pretty flavorless), seswaa (national dish made of pounded beef- bones and all), and cabbage. Everything has a smoky flavor due to being cooked in iron pots over open fires. The best part is the drink that is traditionally served made of ginger, hot water, sugar and possibly lemon.

When someone dies, the service and burial are almost always in their home village. In the three we have attended thus far, one was in Gabane, one in a village about an hour from Gaborone and this last one 9 hours away. Gary talked about this in his most recent blog entry- government workers- teachers, doctors, nurses, pilots, wildlife officials- are all at the mercy of the government in terms of placement and families are quite often separated. It is not uncommon for dad to be one place, mom another and the kids with a grandparent or other relative.  Gabane is a growing bedroom community to Gabs so there are more and more people from other places who come to live in Gabane and go to school or work in Gabs since the rent is less expensive.

Our problem this weekend was that the brother of Teresa’s counterpart’s partner, died on Tuesday. Since we went to the funeral up north, we went to the Friday night prayer service for the Gabane funeral and this was considered sufficient in terms of paying respect. In December we went with a group from Gary’s school to one of the evening prayer services and then decided to go back for the burial but we had to do it by public transportation and arrived in time for the meal and missed the rest. Meal was exactly the same though. So, we thought we should take advantage of the opportunity and experience the vigil and burial (and Gary did know the deceased who by the way was only 31 with a girlfriend and two children- he died of hypertension and complications from diabetes!)

No one ever seems to mention cremation. We need to ask about that. Since many religions prohibit it, it is possible that it is not an accepted practice.  One teacher said he only knew of two places that cremated in the country so obviously is not a common occurrence.

This week we get to go to a wedding on Thursday. We’ve only been to one of those so far so will be nice to enjoy the happier occasion. We do have to say that the music at all these events is just amazing. Come visit and I am sure we can find a wedding and/or funeral for you to experience. All are open to everyone- no invitations are needed.



One thought on “Funeral Customs- A Cultural Comparison

  1. Really enjoy your blogs.   Lisa is doing better.  They are doing trials – taking her off the ventilator for a couple hours at a time- she is breathing on her own for awhile.  Her white count is normal so the pneumonia is slowly going away.  Hope all is good there.   That was a great picture of you two.  Gary looks like uncle Leland.

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone


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