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Double Burials: Modern Trend or an African Taboo?

Death and burial in African culture are sacred and are often treated with respect. These two events usually follow certain patterns in many ...

Death and burial in African culture are sacred and are often treated with respect.

These two events usually follow certain patterns in many cultures and altering those patterns is considered taboo or un-cultural in many cases.

In the African culture certain rites are followed when one dies and during burial. Failure to follow them is believed to invite misfortunes.

In recent years however, owing to shortages of land, councils have been encouraging either cremations or double interments of deceased people and Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation as thousands have died in the country making land more and more scarce.

Cremation is the incineration or burning of a dead body where ashes are either kept, buried or just thrown away.

However, this phenomenon is still to be embraced in the African culture with only eight cremations carried out in the month of May 2022 in Bulawayo where the city council has been advocating for the uptake of cremation as an option arguing that land is a finite resource that must be managed properly.

While a few have embraced the trend, the majority are sceptical and raise various concerns over the matter citing the taboos that surround burning a dead person.

Councillors have raised their own concerns over double interment that is being encouraged where BCC allows for two consenting people to share a grave, particularly couples. This however, is only permissible if the burials are 10 years apart and above.
Double Burials: Modern Trend or an African Taboo?
BCC Director of Health Services Dr Edwin Ndlovu told councillors during a council meeting that the option for double interments was encouraged for couples as compared to two people who have no relationship whatsoever.

“Double interments were opened for any other relationship. Spouses were encouraged to consider them because there were less conflicts. On an ordinary grave, double interments were allowed after a period of 10 years and above.

Residents can now book a grave for double interments while the graves’ depth was more than the normal grave to allow for the second interment to take place,” read part of the latest council minutes.

Historian and culture expert Mr Pathisa Nyathi said traditionally, men and women were never buried together, but on different sides of the homestead.

“We did not have cemeteries back then. By and large men were buried in front of the homestead where the cattle kraal was located and that was the place for ancestral spirits.

The women were buried at the backside of the homestead — side by side with products of their labour since this is where the granaries were located.

Even when they were getting up in the morning, men would head to the front of the homes to tend to cattle and women would go to the backside. So, when they died, they maintained that separation, the homestead was a gendered space,” he said.

Mr Nyathi acknowledged that there was a culture shift and a lot of borrowing from external cultures which was leading to a change in how burials were now conducted.

“We are now talking of a new phenomenon of cemeteries borrowing such things as one grave with different depths that houses two people.

What we see now is a movement away from African culture and practice. We now see people deciding to be buried next to their spouses. They are going further with a cultural practice that is not our own.

“In the early days of Bulawayo there were strong objections about digging a grave a day before burial but early in the morning when it was still dark because there was strong belief in witchcraft that the grave could be tempered with. If in any case it had to be dug the day before then it would be guarded all night. But generally, they did not do that,” he said.

Mr Nyathi said the African culture was generally being eroded and the pillars of belief that sustain a practice were also being eroded and collapsing and that then inevitably leads to the death of the practices as people were no longer doing what their ancestors used to do.

Dr Luyanduhlobo Makwati, an academic and cultural commentator, argues that double interment was capitalist in nature and rather strange as people die from various causes and may not allow for burial in one grave as it goes against African traditions.

“This is an approach that is capitalist in nature, that is saying there is shortage of land for burials. People die in various ways, and in our culture for example, when one commits suicide, they are not buried in a dignified manner.

The corpse is also not allowed to enter a homestead and people have a funeral wake without his/her body in the home because they will have committed a terrible act. Others die through road accidents.

We believe in a theory of causation; Africans do not always take the scientific approach to understand death but we believe in wizards and traditionalists.

So how do people who will have died in unnatural and unacceptable ways like suicide get buried in the same grave with those that die naturally, we do not allow for that,” he said.

Dr Makwati also says Africans believe that when someone is buried, they must sleep and not be disturbed and if a grave is opened to bury another, it symbolises bad omen for those that remain.

He said while it was acceptable for some, double interments were supposed to be done only when local authorities sort out the “mess” that is at cemeteries.

“Our cemeteries are a sorry sight, they are not well numbered for one, the standard of grave digging has also deteriorated. Grave records are said to be in shambles, then imagine double interments 15 years later.

There will be chaos to say the least. Council needs to first clean up the cemeteries, cut off the long grass, ensure there is proper numbering, then they can gain the confidence of people to opt for double interments than what we are currently seeing at local cemeteries,” he suggested.

He said there was need for thorough execution of the double interments if people so wished in order to avoid tampering with wrong graves owing to poor signage and numbering of graves.

Other schools of thought said there was a need for people to understand what burial and death are in African culture. They argue that the place of burial may not be of material or substantial value other than the broader spiritual aspect that followed.

They say this “one flesh concept” was not brought by African spirituality but by assumed understanding of Christianity. They said the issue of double interment was a contentious one when one is in a polygamous marriage, as to who would have the privileged of being interred with the husband.

Ages ago, kings were buried with their close aides/bodyguards as they were considered part of the king and it is not new that double interments are now being given prominence today.

However, they believe that changes in culture are material because culture is more of thought than material aspects, saying what has changed are material issues surrounding death and not how Africans view death.

They say long ago the Ndebele people buried their dead in a circular grave with the corpse in a sitting position facing the east. However, today graves are more elongated taking a rectangular shape but death is still treated with all its respect.

“Because of changes in the social economy what can stop this change, people need to understand that change is the only constant but culture and religion remain the same as there are certain elements that do not change such as burying people facing east and the belief that there is another world outside of this one that we will depart to,” said one thinker.

He said some people, because of the transformational changes within the social-economic behaviour, have decided, while they are alive, to choose their graves, build them and so on, saying it does not take away the fact that they are Africans.

However, the city fathers have also given residents an option to do reburials from one cemetery to the other but the remaining empty grave was not returned to council but the families were allowed to use it for future burials.

These are the complexities that burying a person has come to, the challenge rests with those that seek to rest their loved ones — cremated or not, double interment or not. — Sunday News

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