In most African countries, it is generally believed that the act of burial ensures that the soul of a person rests after death. A funeral is seen as an official rite of passage from the world of the living to the afterlife.
For the Igbo man, death is not the end of his life. It is merely a requirement for transition into the world of the ancestors known as Ndiichie. Death is regarded as a physical separation of the living from the dead, it is not the end of a person’s life. It is believed that for a person to transition into the ancestral world, his children must perform certain funeral rites. This means that admission to the ancestral world is conditional. It is reliant on whether the loved ones of the deceased perform the appropriate rites required for this journey or not. It is believed that people, who after death, go on to become ancestors, must have lived upright lives. They must have died a good death and not onwu ekwensu (a mysterious death), and must have been given a befitting burial to usher them to ala mmuo (the land of the spirits) where they shall be received by their ancestors.
Ancestors, or as it is called in Igbo language Ndiichie, has different connotations in different parts of the world. Due to the influence of Christianity, the term has been misinterpreted by some people to connote diabolical and nefarious beings who only exist to cause harm and pollute a person’s soul.
In Igbo culture, ancestors are referred to as deceased who have successfully passed on to ala mmuo. They serve as intermediaries between the living and the Alusi deities. They intercede on behalf of their loved ones and protect them from strife, death, famine, disease and also warn them of impending danger.
These ancestors are also referred to as the living dead, as they are actively involved in the affairs of the living, especially those of their loved ones. Despite being dead, ancestors are revered and are regarded as active members of their lineage.
In Igbo culture, ancestors are venerated by being invoked in prayers by their loved ones who are still in this world. They are built shrines where libations are poured in their honour, offerings are rendered and petitions are sent to them. Traditionally, the patriarchal head of the family is in charge of venerating the ancestors and petitioning them for ndu (life), udo (peace), aku na uba (prosperity), bountiful harvest, more children, etc.
Another way in which ancestors are venerated is through the offering of Kola nuts. This ritual can be performed by a person and his Chi(spirit) or by a group of people. It involves the salutation of the Chi, the Alusi or other ancestors with iwa orji(blessings).
The kola nut rite is an old practice among the Igbo people, used to welcome visitors into a household. This rite is done by offering blessings and prayers after which the host shares pieces of the kola nut with the group. The orji is considered as a sign of great luck, bravery and nobility among the Igbo people. “Onye wetalu orji wetalu ndu” is a popular saying which means, ‘he who brings kola nut, brings life’.
So, the next time you are in a gathering of Igbo people, blessing, breaking and sharing the orji, be grateful and remember all our lost ancestors and how they watch over us and protect us from strife.
It is pertinent to note that for a person to transition into the ancestral world, his/her children must appropriately facilitate the performance of certain funeral rites. Aside from the benefit of facilitating the admission of the dead into the ancestral world, these funeral rites are vital to prevent the wrath of the spirits and to ensure peaceful rest of the dead. Persons who have not been properly buried are said to plague the human world, wreaking havoc and striking the living to death.
The traditional burial is a consequence of weeks or even months of planning, except in situations where it was an early death or onwu ekwensu, a mysterious death. It is believed that the more outstanding the deceased was during his time in this world, the bigger the burial ceremony. The significance of the Igbo burial is that it seen as both a celebration of life, as well as a rite to usher the deceased into ala mmuo.
The rite for passage is usually commemorated by the slaying of an animal(s) usually a goat, cow or horse. The animal is usually slain at the deceased’s house, after which parts of it are shared among the onyishi (male head of the family), the Ada (first born daughter), the Umunna and the Umuada. It is believed that a deceased will be kept standing in the ancestral world if an animal isn’t slain for him/her by their loved ones.
Before the body of the deceased is laid to rest, it is carefully bathed, perfumed and clothed in the deceased finest cloth. Animal sacrifices are then made. Different deaths warrant different kinds of burials. The head of the family is usually buried in front of his family compound, while a young person is burial at the back of the house, in hiding.
In Igbo culture, death is even more celebrated than life. This is because to the Igbo man, death is not a finality, instead it is a promotion.
Theresa Okereke (Tessie) is a final year student of Faculty of Law of Ebonyi State University and an Intern at Crater Library & Publisher. Tessie is Nigerian-British, Igbo-Nigerian to be precise, from Ebonyi State and resides in Abakaliki.