top of page

Death and Modernity: Death in an African Context (Part B)


It was noted by French Anthropologist Bastide (1968: 104), that "if the structure of African cultures is that of a dialogue (between the living and the dead), then the structure of Western society is that of a monologue-but the monologue of the dead”. The latter half of this quotation concerning the ‘monologue of the dead’ quite firmly emphasises the argument made in the literature review (Part A) of this paper. The first part of the quotation however, concerning the “dialogue” between the living and the dead within an African context, will now be explored in order to portray an alternative cultural approach to perceiving death. Crucially, the positive manifestations of such an alternative approach will also be explored in relation to burial practices and grieving mechanisms employed in more traditional African communities. In looking at the nature of various traditional rituals surrounding death, it will be explored how they ultimately have psychological implications that are more in tune with death as a natural phenomenon. Death and grieving from a community perspective will also be explored in order to highlight the importance of a collectivized approach to coping with death. Lastly, such traditional practices will be assessed in the context of modern day, urban-township settings in order to highlight the effect of modernized, western thought and living structures on such traditions.

Background to Case Study

Death is something which has always greatly fascinated me as a cultural phenomenon. Since a young age, I have always been interested in people’s reactions to death, and the profound impact that the death of a loved one can have on a person’s life. In studying these patterns around me, I began to notice the way in which death rattles people, awakening them from whatever existential slump they may find themselves in. Despite the immense and obvious hardship in dealing with death, I have observed instances where the shock of another person’s death can have a paradoxically positive effect on a person’s life. Hereby, I began to perceive death somewhat differently; namely as that which gives meaning to life. I believe that in order to truly understand life and its many facets of meaning and value, a true and deep reflection on the topic of death is of fundamental importance. Thus, in searching for a suitable example for this case study, I initially planned to study the stance towards death employed by a foreign indigenous tribe or community, in the hope that they would offer a more wholesome, synthesised and natural approach to death, as opposed to the “medicalised” fear and avoidance of death that we find in western culture today. In seeking an alternative cultural approach to death however, I feared getting caught in the over-exaggerated and over-generalised dichotomy between “western” and “indigenous” worlds, in that the appraisal of one in conjunction with the discrediting of the other is of no real value, and is an ultimately feeble approach. In overcoming this dichotomy, I eventually realised that an alternative to the “western” approach exists not too far from home, here in my own country, within a traditional African context. Growing up, I had a family relation who was of Venda descent, and who often explained to me the concept of death from the perspective of her culture, whereby death is not seen as the ending of life, but as the mere continuation thereof in another ontological form. Thus, having expanded my interest in the topic of death through philosophy, I decided to focus my case study on the perception of death from the perspective of a traditional African culture, namely the Tshivenda culture.

Death as the Continuation of Life

Within traditional African cultures in general, life does not end with death, but merely progresses into another realm (Mbiti, 1969). Thus, death within such a context does not terminate or end a person’s life in an absolute sense, but rather causes a change in the state or condition of existence (Anderson, 2000). When looking at the ethical discourse surrounding death within such a context, the effect of this perception is that the notions of “life” and “death” are not caught up in an absolute, opposing binary, as they are within a more western, modern setting. Crucially, this lack of mutual exclusivity implies that there are no solid, dividing lines between the two concepts, and that linguistically, the connotations of ‘death’ within such a context are far less harsh and severe as what they are in the settings described in Part A. Superficially, the stance towards death within an African traditional setting is the same as any other culture, whereby death is a naturally feared and unwanted occurrence. It is in no way glorified or glamorised, and remains a culturally and universally difficult and challenging thing to overcome. However, the underlying philosophy of the Tshivenda tribe for example, perceives death as the start of someone’s “deeper relationship with all of creation” (Anderson, 2000: 6). Furthermore, the implied role of death within such a culture is to complement life, and to introduce the deceased to the realm of communication among the living and non-living, or the invisible and visible worlds. Hereby, ancestral worship comes to the fore, which is a crucial component of traditional African culture. In family and community settings in particular, a deceased family member does not merely get celebrated, mourned and remembered, but rather gets venerated to the extent that he or she becomes an “important extension of the living” (Setsibe, 2012: 2). Deceased family members thus become ‘living dead’ or ancestors, whereby their existence has not ceased, but has merely changed in terms of ontological form.

Transition to the After Life

Thus, in light of the above-mentioned transition or ‘crossing-over’ into another spiritual realm, death can be understood as the catalyst for this transition. In better understanding this secondary, ‘spiritual’ world, it is significant to note that in Western religions and cultures such as Christianity, such transitions also occur, whereby it is for example believed that death implies the loss and decay of the physical body, but the continued existence of the soul in a new spiritual realm, such as heaven. In a traditional, African context however, with the Tshivenda culture in mind specifically, there is no distinct, clear cut dualism that distinguishes “physical” from “spiritual”. Rather than merely a “part” of somebody living on, such as their soul, the person continues into the spiritual world in a whole state, equipped with a new body that identically resembles the earthly one, “but enhanced with powers to move about as an ancestor” (Anderson, 2000: 9). In further understanding this alternative, spiritual realm from a Tshivenda perspective, Mbiti (1969) notes that the deceased go to a spatial “place” that resembles and replicates the real world. This can be understood as an “extension” of the present, whereby the geographic and social contexts remain the same, except with the absence of negative experiences such as pain or hunger (Mbiti, 1969). In further making sense of this perception toward the after-life, it must crucially be noted that a belief in the post-humus spiritual life “does not constitute a hope for a future and better life” (Mbiti, 1969: 4). Crucially, a break away from the monotheistic religions of the world hereby occurs in that, as Mbiti (1969:6) notes:

“To live here and now is the most important concern of African religious activities and beliefs…Even life in the hereafter is conceived of in materialistic and physical terms. There is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter”.

Ultimately, this perspective towards the after-life as a form of continued living represents a softer and more approachable understanding of death, in that it does not imply the strongly dualistic dichotomy between life and death that is so commonly perceived in more modern, westernised settings, whereby death is ‘othered’ and implies the absolutely final sequestration from life.

The ‘Good’ Death

In any society, the general perception toward death is constructed as a form of social phenomenon which is directly informed by religion, language and culture (Radzilani, 2010). Thus, death as a social phenomenon is approached differently from culture to culture, and depends on history, social context and religious affiliation. In social discourse surrounding death, each culture can be understood as having its own idea of a ‘good death’. As paradoxical as the notion of a ‘good death’ may seem, the concept itself can be traced back to Greek etymology. Two divergent sources hereby emerge, whereby the one meaning entails ‘to die well’ (Howarth and Leaman, 2001). Similarly, the other etymological meaning is ‘to die nobly’, which entails the condition that a person is prepared to meet his or her own death (Howarth and Leaman, 2001).

Although every culture may have its own understanding of an ‘appropriate’ death, the Tshivenda culture has its own, particular and unique conception of a ‘good death’. Specifically, such a death should occur “as a public event”, whereby a person dies in his or her own home, surrounded by family members, friends and members of the community. In this context specifically, social and community support are of crucial importance, both to the dying person and to the remaining friends and family (Radzilani, 2010: 48). With deaths in a traditional Tshivenda cultural setting, a strong emphasis is placed on including the dying person in decision making relating to their own care. This has the effect of not only reducing a feeling of helplessness, but also of acknowledging such a person’s integrity, resulting in the promotion of a “healthy psychological state” both for the dying person and family members (Radzilani, 2010: 48).

In further understanding the perception of a ‘good death’ from a Tshivenda perspective, it is a “natural prolongation” of the dying process which is seen as ideal, in that the dying person has the opportunity to say farewell to family and friends, as well as to make peace with their own death. Crucially, it has hereby been emphasised that a strong opposition exists to the notion of machine-aided prolongation of life within a Tshivenda setting (Radzilani, 2010). Thus, a good death within this context entails the opportunity for a person to die at their home, surrounded by loved ones and with access to necessary and important rituals that allow for the “separation of the body and the soul”, and which promote a peaceful and natural death (Radzilani, 2010: 48).

In understanding the positive effect of the construction of the ‘good death’ notion, it can be argued that this form of death, as idealistic and rare as it may seem, is “more conducive to coping with death” (Radzilani, 2010: 48). Crucially, it is here worth noting that even in a traditional Tshivenda setting, the conception of a good death has changed due to the fact that many people are rather dying in hospitals.

Rites and Rituals

In an African context, rituals and rites surrounding death are of absolute and pivotal importance, in that traditionally, it is believed that the absence of particular rituals and practises will lead to the failed transition of the deceased from this life to the afterlife, in which he or she becomes an ancestor (Anderson, 2000). Thus, in understanding the way death itself is perceived in such a context, it can be defined as a brief interregnum period between life and the transition into the spiritual realm.

In traditional African communities, the bereaved family members and relatives of a deceased person have to perform particular rites and rituals that respect and reinforce prescriptions of culture. Crucially, a deceased person is not acknowledged as being among the living, nor among the dead, before such rituals have occurred (Setsibe, 2012: 14).

In looking at the rituals surrounding death and grieving within a Tshivenda culture specifically, the most universal of them is that of publically displaying grief. Such a display can occur through funerals, prayers and memorial services, whereby bereaved family members of the deceased are granted the opportunity to publicly mourn. Crucially, Radzilani (2010: 68) notes that in her culture (she herself is of Tshivenda descent), experiences of grief need to be acknowledged, validated and approved by members of the community, in order for such experiences to carry legitimacy.

Furthermore, a great variety of particular rituals and rites exist within a Tshivenda context that serve the purpose of assisting the deceased to the afterlife. For example, some of the deceased’s personal belongings (such as clothes and dishes) are placed with him or her in the casket, based on the belief that such items may be needed during the journey to the world of the dead. Similarly, the custom exists whereby a dead body ought to be removed through a hole in the wall of a house rather than through a door (Andersen, 2000). This has the effect of making it more difficult for the deceased person to memorize his path back to where he or she came from, because the hole would be sealed immediately after. When removing a body, it is also ensured that the corpse is removed “feet first”, in that this has the objective of “symbolically pointing away from the former place of residence” (Andersen, 2000: 6). In Tshivenda (and other African) cultures, there is also a general requirement for the mourners to be ‘purified’ following the death of the deceased (Setsibe, 2012). This is because the family of the deceased is seen as being polluted or “contaminated” after coming into contact with the dead. Crucially, the purification process is not characterised by a malicious othering or ostracising of family members, but rather by a community-orientated, participatory ceremony in a public setting whereby all members of the community take part in order to remove contaminating spirits, following which the mourners can be re-introduced into their normal social contexts (Setsibe, 2012).

Crucially, rituals and mourning practices in such a context occur within a community-based manner. Funeral rituals are thus performed socially, whereby they serve the purpose of confirming a change in status for both the bereaved and the deceased (Pine, 1989). Thus, a wife’s social status will for example be changed from that of a wife to a widow through the particular rituals. Similarly, the status of the deceased will change from that of living, to that of the “living dead”, whereby they will still be perceived as living, but in a different state or form.

The Value of rituals

Both the social construction of a ‘good death’ ideal, as well as the performance of rites and rituals are of extreme significance, in that they assist the dying from the perspective of dignity, as well as assist those left to mourn for various reasons.

Firstly, although the notion of a good death is idealistic in nature and rarer in reality due to people generally dying in hospitals, the social and linguistic construction of a ‘good death’ nevertheless has positive outcomes. Specifically, remaining family members as well as the deceased person are able to fulfil certain roles leading up to an actual death. With particular regard to prescribed cultural rituals, family members are consoled in knowing that culturally expected traditions and obligations have been met.

Furthermore, rituals provide a greater sense of certainty for those left behind that the deceased person has in fact transitioned to the after-life and is able to assist the living in their every-day lives from the position of an ancestor. For example, in a Tshivenda cultural setting, maize-seed grains are left on the grave of the deceased following the burial (Radzilani, 2010). This is done as a symbolic gesture, encouraging the deceased to assist with the growing of the seeds in the ploughing fields in order to expand the amount of harvested wheat. This metaphoric gesture however also symbolises the belief that the dead will rise again, “as a plant rises from a seed”, in order to assist the living in daily life, though in a different ontological form (Radzilani, 2010: 70).

In looking at burials themselves within a rural African context, the general custom exists that a person’s own homestead ought to be used as a final resting place and burial site (Setsibe, 2012). This is because special meaning is attached to a dead person being buried at their own home. This concept has been described as “place identity”, and entails the belief that there is an attachment to place which forms part of a person’s identity (Dlukulu, 2010). Thus, the geographical placing of a burial and grave-site is in this regard of crucial importance, in that to have one’s deceased family member buried nearer to one’s everyday social and family context would imply a naturally different and arguably more contextualised perception toward death in contrast to the perspective of a person whose deceased family member is buried in a graveyard that is significantly further away from their everyday life-contexts.

In further understanding what can be gained from rituals surrounding death in a traditional African context, it is argued that they play a therapeutic role in returning a healthy psychological status and wellbeing to the bereaved family members (Setsibe, 2012). Specifically, they allow for the expression of strong emotions amongst relatives and family to manifest in a comfortable, community-based setting. Furthermore, due to the manner in which rituals are performed, which is significantly repetitive and prescriptive in nature, feelings of grief and anxiety are eased in that rituals offer a form of structure during a time of general chaos and disorder (Radzilani, 2010). On top of providing a space for the public display of grief to be expressed, rituals also serve the purpose of affirming and reaffirming cultural, as well as ethnic and religious identity (Setsibe, 2012: 4).

In lastly analysing what other cultures can learn from the rituals surrounding death and grieving within an African (Tshivenda) context, it is worth generally appreciating the immensely community-based orientation towards death. Upon the death of a community member, mobilization immediately occurs amongst community-members, whereby not only condolences are offered, but practical assistance towards the bereaved family. From support with cooking and domestic maintenance, to the physical labour involved in rigging up tents and structures for the funeral processes, members of the community unite for the sake of making the grieving process more manageable for a mourning family (Radzilani, 2010). Not only does this have the effect of congregating people and strengthening social bonds, it also has the profound implication of partially ‘collectivizing’ the grieving process itself, sharing the burden amongst others in order for the directly affected family members to feel less alone in a time of crisis. If anything, this aspect of a traditional, African approach toward death is worth learning from in other societies.

Rites and Rituals in a Modern Context

In looking at cultural practices of African cultures within a modern and urbanized context, it must crucially be noted that despite the value of traditional rites and rituals relating to death, such practices have in reality been significantly diminished by the contextual social framework in which such people now find themselves. Specifically, due to the rapid rate of urbanisation and urban migration, the cultural values, world views, rites, rituals and traditions of people have changed to a large extent (Setsiba, 2012). In reality, cultural practices and traditions relating to burials, funerals and death ceremony are occurring less and less in urban-township settings specifically, often due to practical considerations such as lacking infrastructure and cost restrictions (Setsiba, 2012). On top of the influence of urban migration, it can be argued that the impact of modern, western-dominated thinking, as explored significantly in Part A of this paper, has contributed significantly to the steady demise of traditional practises, rituals and perceptions relating to death. This can be seen in the phenomenon whereby funeral ceremonies in townships are followed by ‘after tears’ parties, whereby friends and relatives of the deceased engage in a form of social interaction that resembles modern day, excessive ‘partying’ as opposed to traditional mourning and grieving. At these gatherings, a general striving towards showing off wealth and opulence can be seen, as well as the exaggerated consumption of alcohol. As argued by Setsiba (2012), such ceremonies have begun to replace traditional mourning practices in urban-township settings, which is distinctly worrying from the perspective of individual and community psychological health.


Thus, despite the very real impact of modern-day, urbanised settings on traditional rituals surrounding death, it has nevertheless been portrayed that such rituals and their philosophical underpinnings are of immense cultural and psychological value. By death being perceived as the continuation as opposed to the termination of life, it is not ‘othered’ and decontextualized from life in the same way that it is done historically in western-traditional thought. Furthermore, due to the idealistic formulation of a ‘good death’, a positive standard exists in terms of which dignified and psychologically ‘healthy’ deaths may occur, both from the perspective of the dying and the bereaved. Lastly, rites and rituals surrounding death, particularly from the Tshivenda culture, have been explored in order to portray the psychologically beneficial attributes of such rituals, whereby they help significantly in terms of grieving processes. Ultimately, an attempt has been made to show that death does not need to be a lonely, solitary process that is to be decontextualized, rationalised and avoided at all costs. It is something which we can bring into our own contextual frameworks and make sense of, in order to allow for an approach towards death that is based on foresight, community and holistic health.

1.10 Reference list/ Bibliography

Anderson, A. 2000. Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Tshwane: University of South Africa Press.

Bastide, S. 1968. Religions Africaines et structures des civilisations. Presence Africaine, (1):66-78.

Dlukulu, P. M. 2010. Black Urban Widows: Their experiences of and coping with bereavement in a transitional society. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Pretoria, Pretoria: South Africa. Pretoria: University of Pretoria Press.

Mbiti, J. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969.

Howarth, G. & Leaman, O. 2001. Encyclopaedia of death and dying. London: Routledge.

Pine, V.R. 1989. Death, loss, and disenfranchised grief. In K.J. Doka (Ed.), Disenfranchised grief: Recognising hidden sorrow (pp. 13-24). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Radzilani, M. 2010. A Discourse Analysis of Bereavement Rituals in a Tshivenda Speaking Community: African Christian and Traditional African Perspectives. Published doctoral dissertation.

Setsiba, T.H.S. 2012. Mourning Rituals and Practices in Contemporary South African Townships: A Phenomenological Study. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree PhD in Community Psychology in the Department of Psychology, University of Zululand.

bottom of page