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Igboland Burials

In Igboland, burials are extremely complex ceremonies that are regarded as sacrosanct and fundamental to the preservation of the balance between the living and the dead. In Igbo cosmology, they are perceived as rituals that facilitate a soul’s passage from uwa (the real world) to ala mmuo (the spiritual realm). Since, traditionally, the concepts of a heaven and hell were nonexistent in Igbo cosmology, the Igbo have always believed in an interconnected dual universe consisting of the realms of the living and the dead. Living beings existed in the living realm, while the spirits of deceased ancestors existed in the realm of the dead, an alternate, earth-like dimension similar to the physical world in every manner, complete with villages and clans. For the deceased, entrance into ala mmuo could only be secured through proper burial, thus the significance of the burial institution in Igbo culture. Individuals who were unfortunate enough to not be buried properly were condemned to an eternity of roaming the earth as restless, mischievous spirits.

From time immemorial, burials in Igboland have been steeped in tradition. In keeping with their cultural values which praise one’s character and good deeds over wealth and possessions, the Igbo buried individuals according to how they lived their lives. At the death of great men or philanthropists, the local otimkpu, or town crier, would be sent to wander the village announcing news of the calamity. During the man’s burial, the ear-shattering salvoes of guns would be heard tearing through the sky from as far as neighboring villages, serving as an announcement of his departure from the world. He would be laid to rest in his best regalia along with his gun or his favorite items. Numerous cows and goats would be slaughtered for a feast, and if he had cut heads at war or were a part of any titled or secret societies, his colleagues would field a masquerade or a warrior’s dance in his honor as a last respect.

In some areas, women married into the village were taken back to their paternal homes where they would be buried accordingly. Native daughters of the soil were also accorded ornate ceremonies that were attended by relatives, community members, and peers of any titled or female societies they might’ve been a part of. Women were often buried with their pots, ivory, and expensive ornaments as well. Infamous or unmarried males and females were given simple and quiet burials, while deceased infants, the victims of abominable deaths, and twins were simply thrown into evil forests to rot.

By the mid-20th century, due to the influence of Christianity, the manner in which the Igbo buried their dead had radically changed. Although a few still clung to traditional ways, following the Biafran war, by the 1970s and onwards, most Igbo people practiced burials in the Christian manner. As a result, many elements of the ceremony that were considered “pagan” or non-Christian were abandoned and regulatory powers over the ceremony shifted hands from the community’s indigenous faith leaders to Christian Churches. For the most part, masquerade societies and Ozo councils no longer controlled burial rites, but now individuals were laid to rest by the Church and in manners approved by Christian doctrines. Interestingly, to this day, despite changes, the Igbo continue the ancient practice of burying their dead inside their homes or in their compounds and farmlands, as physical proximity to one’s deceased relations continues to be a source of spiritual nourishment for millions of Igbo sons and daughters.



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