Week 3 Activity Post South Africa

Looking at death among cultures, we read a paper by Susan Orpett Long that looks at what is known as the good death in both Japan and the United States. Among both groups, there are some similar aspects of what is considered a good death: a peaceful death, a pain-free death, being surrounded by family, recognizing the continuity from living to dying, the belief that death should be  personalized experience based on that person’s values, and a strong concern to not be a burden on the family. In general, a  person is more likely to die in old age than they are in childhood, and death is more likely to occur following chronic illness than from infectious disease.  Even though there are some areas in death that are perceived commonly in different cultures, there are many parts that remain different.

In South Africa alone, there are so many different cultures that even among this single country, there are many different rituals and rites that are practiced. These rites are further differentiated when looking at who has died and how they have died. If the death was a still born child for example, the child is still given a name and buried as if they had lived and is cared for by a family elder. If they were an adult, the spouse or the family elder is responsible for closing the eyes and the body is washed by a family elder that is of the same sex as the deceased. All bodies are washed and prepared for the burial, but extra steps are taken if the person did not die of natural causes. If the death were caused by an accident, for example, the ritual is performed at a designated place outside the home as a way to prevent recurrence.  If the person had died on foreign land and the family only received remains, it is still treated as if it were an entire body.  (Martin, 2013)

Before the actual burial, there are home rituals that must be done soon after the person dies. An interesting part of the home ritual includes turning all the pictures to face the wall, smearing ash on the windows, and covering all reflective surfaces so the dead can’t see themselves. Other rituals include removing the bed of the deceased person and holding a vigil in the home so that the community may come to pay their respects and offer condolences. There are also rituals for how one should remove the body from the house for the burial which are meant to confuse the dead so that they can’t return to the house too soon and include: taking them out of the house through a hole in the wall feet first and taking a zigzag path to the morgue or burial site. Also uncommon to what we see in much of the US is mourning customs that can continue for at least a week after the burial include not leaving the house, not talking or laughing loudly, wearing black clothes, and shaving their hair. During this time there is also a ritual cleansing done as it is believed that anyone or anything that has come in contact with the dead is unclean. There are so many things that I have learned about how death is handled in South Africa, all leading me to the conclusion of the large role that families as well as communities play in the death of a loved one. (Ruddock)


Martin, Jarred, et al. “‘Missing in Action’: the Significance of Bodies in African Bereavement Rituals.” SciELO, SciELO, Jan. 2013, www.scielo.org.za/scielo.phpscript=sci_arttext&pid=S1015-60462013000100003.

Ruddock, Vilma. “Death Rituals in Africa.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp, dying.lovetoknow.com/Death_Rituals_in_Africa.

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