Changing face of the ‘Zimbabwean’ funeral

Francis Mupazviriho

Funerals are an inevitable sad part of our exit from mother earth.

This exit to another world yonder, confirms human being’s mortality.

This is despite their status, power, influence and any other distinction which one may make.

We are mere visitors, surely. At least we are reminded time and again.

Musicians are disconcerted about death, as expressed in their lyrics. Preachers sermonise about it often, with the hope of reminding about a “permanent home”, full of happiness!

With death comes the ceremony called the funeral.

It constitutes an important event marking a transition of two stark worlds; that is life and death. You can call it the ultimate exit, without a point of return.

In this vein, funerals constitute a central part of any people’s social, cultural and even religious expressions which are built over time through tradition.

However, despite entrenched traditions, the conduct of funerals and the attendant processes of memorialising the dead is going through rapid transformations, some unprecedented even.

Zimbabwe has been no exception to the emerging changes which have redefined existing century old values of traditional religion, or Christian influences. Or, in other cases religious syncretism, given the tendency to mix the worlds of traditional religion and protocols and Christian values.

The shifting attitudes towards death, the conduct on funerals and the Zimbabwean society’s lackadaisical approach to mourning, can be explained by a number of factors.

Firstly, funerals are no longer perceived sacredly, to the same extent of the past!

Years back death was rare.

Now death is as common as day.

Back in the day, funerals were often adult-only affairs.

Growing up, we would only be told that so and so has passed away. It ended there.

However, as children we were never allowed to attend physically, unless there were compelling reasons for minors to attend. There was fear of death.

Some graveyards, especially in rural areas, were littered with legendary stories of ghosts haunting the living.

This often occurred if the deceased had left mother earth acrimoniously, often from stress-induced causes ranging from marital disputes, murder and other such stuff often bringing untold vengeance to the few living targets.

Over the years, the Zimbabwean funeral, or generally the African one has generally been changed by a number of factors.

In our affluent or even urban settings, the funeral has generally become social gatherings of few sobs and at times merry-making. Nowadays, even flashy outfits are now worn to mark the sombre event. High-end clothes, matching shades and other such stuff which is the mark of sophistication. The kind of stuff, which one sees on a typical funeral scene on a Western movie!

At some funerals nowadays, there are even outriders who part of the convoy, in scenes reminiscent to the send-offs of Zimbabwe’s national heroes!  

The contemporary thought processes have changed the way the Zimbabwean society views death. Nowadays the dead are not “mourned”, they are “celebrated”.

All these undercurrents have crowned the place of funerals, society’s growing casualization of it through individual emotional and social expressions.

Apart from rural to urban migration, the Zimbabwean scenario of changing funeral perceptions can be attributed to: Western influences, technological forces and diaspora contributions, whether these are direct or otherwise.  

Of social media memorialisation

After death occurs, the message is then relayed to relatives, friends and other such acquaintances.

Regardless of the cause of death, there is often an initial solemn expression from those who have received the message. For one who was sick for a very long time, the death is constructed as a “resting place”.

For one who would have passed on after a short illness or even a road traffic accident, there is often an accompanying shock.

Societal expressions are therefore measured in line with the deceased’s profile and the nature of their exit from this earth.

The advent of technological forces, especially social media has greatly changed the way Zimbabweans express themselves.

Platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook have been used for the varied memorialisation of the dead. With Twitter, prominent figures have trended, marking the importance and stature which the formerly living had during their times.  

Social media expressions of death include: putting the deceased on the status or profile picture, written tributes, short videos, throwback memories and emoji’s depicting grief.

Positively, social media has increased real time connectivity for transmitting death notices, between the urban, rural and at times-diaspora constituents.

In the past, before the advent of social media especially, the messages were relayed to relatives, via radio platforms. This message would however take long to reach to its intended targets at times.

Despite the commendable agency of social media, it has however abetted the imperatives for physical and social interaction which bound the Zimbabwean society’s existence and organisation.

The communitarian organisation of the Zimbabwean villages, which were organised by bloodline or out of social relations was felt during the mourning processes.  In fact, any funeral automatically assumed stately proportions as the whole village ground to a halt.

This spirit was reflected especially in high density areas as the whole community stood with the bereaved.

However over time, the olden values have dissipated. There is now a marked resort to individualism, which has been reinforced by social media.

The interconnectedness has often removed the physical touch and connection which characterised our society.

At times, even those who are closer geographically to the home of the deceased only end by expressing themselves on social media! While our society now trends the message of death with precision, it now lacks the same resolve to organise itself in assisting any processes at the funeral.

The olden embraces which glued our society’s relations in times of happiness and even mourning has now gone!

Even during the programme, it is quite common to see mourners fiddling with their gadgets perusing one social media page after another.

Of traditional and Pentecostal churches

Apart from propagating spirituality, the church is a social organisation whose conduct is expressed at ceremonies which include funerals.

The shifting expressions and conducts at funerals can be explained by the transformation of the Christian divide in Zimbabwe and generally Africa.

The divide was comprised by the “mainstream churches”, that is the Methodist Church, Salvation Army, Seventh Day and Anglican among others. Then there were, African Independent Churches (AIC), which were formed with the intention of breaking away from colonial orthodoxy.  The rise of Pentecostal formations, constitutes a new brand of AICs, which have altered the spiritual and social systems especially in urban settings.

According to Mayrargue 2008:6 (quoted in Prophets, Profits and The Bible in Zimbabwe [2013] the new African Pentecostalism “covers a disparate collection of movements:

“mega churches”, able to hold thousands, or even tens of thousands, of worshippers, and microscopic ones; foreign Churches from outside of Africa and local organisations; inter- denominational movements which work together with the whole evangelical movement and more closed ones.”

A defining characteristic of the mainstream churches was its organisation at circuit and community level. This organisation was felt in fostering brotherhood and sisterhood ties, which was expressed at ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.

With this fold of these mainstream churches and the old AICs, funeral expressions and rituals were requisitely followed.  If the deceased was a member of the women’s or men’s fellowship, it automatically followed that her “friends in the journey of faith” would don their apparel.

There were a set of hymns which were sung to mark the exit to another world. Rituals were done within the church, including candle lighting and the singing of victorious songs for giant believers promoted to another world.

The send-off constituted a key element of the church’s social organisation.

Under the old organisation of the mainstream formations, the funeral was an event of monumental proportions.

Men’s and women’s fellowship organisations went about crusading in hymn-singing for the whole night. This was part of a sentimental send-off to a colleague who had departed.

Further to that, women’s forums also organised themselves in consoling the family of the deceased. They would sleep at the residence and assume so many duties in the spirit of sisterhood.

Now this camaraderie is slowly dying, including within traditional churches.

Some few months ago, this writer attended a funeral, of a deceased who attended one of the traditional formations.

She was now in her late sixties and a vital cog for that particular church. During her time she assumed counselling role to the young women of the women’s fellowship.

Yet, when she died, it had to take the pastor to reprimand her colleagues, most who did not perform the expected send-off for such a veteran. The local pastor was of course not amused.  

In the traditional church, funerals automatically became night vigils of prayer and hymn singing.

These days, most mourners quickly retreat to the comfort of their homes at dusk.  This is now quite endemic not only within the church but at times within the bloodline.

Before you know it, uncle so and so, whose presence is needed during the tenure of the proceedings, would have retreated back to his home!

In the not so distant past, sermonising preachers got energetic at the sight of mourners at a funeral. They would preach the “good news” with much precision, to the point of getting converts who were moved by the requiem sermon!

Messages were picked from different verses, but however commonly reminding the people about their mortality on mother earth; the very reason they were supposed to turn their lives to Christ, we were told.

The emergence of Pentecostal formations has however brought a different organisation including to funeral ceremonies. There is no particular hymn set for the send-off but rather a mixture of songs from across denominations.

There are no uniforms and not much politics, as is the case at times in traditional formations.  The community level organisation which the traditional church thrives on is simply not there for most of the instances.

When funerals became casual

In the past the wake was a time of untold suffering. The typical funeral consisted of unending whispers in corners, about who was going to contribute for the coffin, food and other such expenses which came unexpectedly with death.

It was often the relatives or, friends who would end up having the odious task of putting up their resources, or coordinating to make sure that the deceased is accorded a decent send off.

This explained why, at some funerals, powerful uncles, well to do son in laws, or other diaspora relatives would be asked to provide financial assistance in the time of need.

But now that has changed given the emergence of funeral services companies especially in the past twenty years. While Zimbabwe’s market had been initially dominated by Doves Holdings, it has however been revolutionised by Nyaradzo Funeral Services. There have been many other notable companies including Moonlight and some recent entrants like FCG Zimbabwe Funeral Services.

Nowadays one literally has to prepare for the eventuality of their death, their dependents or even in-laws.

When this writer’s daughter was born, yours truly was asked by his mother if he had put her on the funeral policy, even some few days after her coming to this world.  

The acceptance of death as an inevitable exit from this world evidently shows the society’s changing perceptions. Nowadays death takes the unexpected, including toddlers, the “fit”, the “young” and so on.

With funeral services companies, the outlook of the memorial services has effectively changed nowadays.  Nowadays there are hearses, some of which are high-end toys. Gone are the days when the body of the deceased would be transported in rundown vehicles.

Even added to that, as service provision continues to change, there are all manner of additional specifications which have come to remove the burdens, or rather the hardships often associated with wakes, at least in the olden times.

Nowadays, some funeral policies come with all manner of services, such as: catering, provision of sanitary facilities, tents for mourners to sleep and beds.

In the past, the enduring hardships of the funeral was often reflective of the torrid time which the surviving spouse and children would experience afterwards.

Despite the wails here and there, the funeral has at times provided a social platform for people to have social interactions.

Nowadays a lot of subject matters are discussed in cliques at funerals. Talk of politics, the obtaining macro-economic environment, the English Premier League and other such contemporary issues.  

In the end, the built expressions have constantly depicted a Zimbabwean society transforming itself, at least towards its conduct to funerals.

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