Death, Dying, and the Memorialization of the Dead
An Examination of the Ceremonial, Spiritual, and Social Significance of Funeral Rites among the Luo of Kenya

Among the many traditions practiced by the Luo of Kenya for centuries before European colonization, the ceremonies and rituals performed in the event of the death of a family member or community member were particularly meaningful. The Luo funeral process involved a series of regimented stages to be followed by the family and community of the deceased, serving as symbolic expressions of mourning, remembrance, and communal unity. From the announcement to the corporate undertaking of burial to the prolonged period of memorialization, this process could take from several days to up to several years. This enormous significance that the Luo placed on funerals and memorialization of the dead was deeply rooted in traditional African religious beliefs regarding the afterlife. However, this level of veneration was not extended to every deceased Luo; the level of respect and honor afforded to the dead by the funeral process widely varied depending both on the status of the individual and the circumstances of death.

Among the many traditions practiced by the Luo of Kenya for centuries before European colonization, the ceremonies and rituals performed in the event of the death of a family member or community member were particularly meaningful. The Luo funeral process involved a series of regimented stages to be followed by the family and community of the deceased, serving as symbolic expressions of mourning, remembrance, and communal unity. From the announcement to the corporate undertaking of burial to the prolonged period of memorialization, this process could take from several days to up to several years. This enormous significance that the Luo placed on funerals and memorialization of the dead was deeply rooted in traditional African religious beliefs regarding the afterlife. However, this level of veneration was not extended to every deceased Luo; the level of respect and honor afforded to the dead by the funeral process widely varied depending both on the age, gender, status of the individual, and the circumstances of death.

The communal Luo funeral process often began before the event of death. When the Luo found that one of their members had fallen ill and was near death, the family member or group member would be showered with affection and care and treated with the utmost respect. If a person knew they had any unsettled indemnities or latent hostilities with the sick and dying individual, they would have to make amends with that person in hopes of reconciliation. If this was not done, the Luo feared the deceased would return to haunt their wrongdoers.

After the moment of death, the highly public mourning process would begin with the announcement. In the event of the death of the head of a homestead, this was made by the first wife of the patriarch through screaming and groaning to get the attention of the village. Its members were then allowed to visit the deceased, who would be lying in state within his house of the first wife. While inside, the people would yell and scream to publicly mourn him. There were, however, a number of taboos regulating the conduct of mourning for particular family members. Any married daughters of the deceased were not allowed to mourn their father until they first informed their husband’s family and returned to their father’s home, and the sons-in-law of the head of the household were not allowed to mourn until after the funeral.

In order to tie up any remaining loose ends for the deceased and to prepare for the funeral, there were several tasks, including sending messengers to relatives and friends of the deceased, paying dowry, and finishing home repairs, that needed to be completed by the family and community of the deceased before the burial process could begin.

This was an occasion for the mourning family to heavily rely on its community; when a family was undergoing a funeral of one of its members, “many different people would offer help and tributes to the family,” both through offering “condolences and contributions” and by offering such services as “[helping] to clean the house, pitch the tent(s) and search for the animals that will be slaughtered.” This communal generosity was made possible because the “similarities between people [were] more pronounced in times of death,” which allowed a funeral to “unite different people – including people with very different opinions – into one big family.” After all of this was completed, the burial site, which was always in front of the first wife’s house with the head facing the front of a gate, was identified and digging commenced. A cousin of the deceased began the digging, followed by the grandchildren. These people were unpaid and did it solely out of respect and obligation.

When the day of burial came, the “Tero Buru” ritual was performed. This consisted of the members of the community dressing in costumes and masks to chase, mock, and chant away any evil spirits from the burial site. For the next three days, the mourning would continue from the wives and daughters, who would weep only early in the morning and late in the evening to show their respect and appreciation. After the funeral was completed, the people dispersed by order of seniority and familial status: first the sons, by age; next, the daughters; finally, the wives, who often stayed for up to sixty days. This was followed by the symbolic head-shaving of the family of the deceased in order to both demonstrate the impact of the death and allow the wives to choose a new partner and receive an inheritance.

However, the dead did not exit the lives of their families after the funeral ended. The recently-dead were “in a state of personal immortality, and their process of dying [was] not yet complete,” in a status known as “the living-dead.” While they persisted in the memories of their loved ones, these “living-dead [were] still ‘people’, and had not yet become ‘things’, ‘spirits’ or ‘its’,” which [allowed] them to “return to their human families from time to time, and share meals with them” through the living symbolically pouring out water and food for the deceased. This memorialization of the dead was a vital final stage in the Luo funeral process, and allowed the dead to continue to play a major role in their families long after their deaths.

While funerals served to venerate many deceased Luo and show support to their families, many extenuating circumstances could drastically alter the conduct and significance of a funeral. These included, in particular, the status of the deceased and the circumstances of death. The level of respect given to the dead could vary widely depending on the status of the deceased and the circumstances surrounding their death.

The main circumstantial stipulations for a proper funeral were the presence of the body and the cause of death. If a member of the family passed away outside of the community or family compound, it was believed that that person must be returned to the homestead or that person faced a “wrongful death” in the the afterlife. In such cases the family would bury some of that person’s possessions or ritual substitutes in order to try and save their spirit. The circumstances of death were taken into account as well, with traditional funeral rites only going to those who died “normal deaths.” Those who died “through suicide or through animal attack, and victims of diseases like leprosy, smallpox or epilepsy” and other untimely and unusual deaths were likely to not be given the same treatment as others for fear of witchcraft and curses.

Thus, the veneration afforded to the dead among the Luo was contingent upon whether or not they died in a way that was deemed proper. Status and gender also played a key role in how the dead were mourned and how the accompanying rituals were carried out. The rituals outlined above only applied to the male head of a compound; those of lower status often did not receive the same honors. There were also certain rituals that were neither performed for deceased women or by living women; chief among these for the Luo was the tero buru.

Among the many indispensable rituals practiced by the Luo in the pre-colonial era, traditional funeral rites were some of the most important to their society. These were carried out in a regimented, procedural manner, with specific roles assigned to each member of the family and community of the deceased in order to symbolically express mourning and show deep respect for the dead. These rites often persisted long after the funeral itself concluded, serving to illustrate traditional African conceptions of the afterlife and preserve the deceased person’s role in the community. However, this level of veneration and respect was not shown to every dead Luo; the level of respect given to the dead could vary widely depending on the status of the deceased and the circumstances surrounding their death.

By Mark Lombardo, Philip Corfman, and Kasey McCombs

Images

Luo Men Performing the "Tero Buru" Ritual during a Funeral

Luo Men Performing the "Tero Buru" Ritual during a Funeral: Luo men in their buffalo headdresses in a "tero bur" ritual during a funeral ~ Photo by George R. Carline, 1929 | Pitts River Museum, http://www.prmprints.com/image/447729/luo-men-wearing-headdresses

Sculpture of a Lion Atop the Tomb of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga

Sculpture of a Lion Atop the Tomb of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: This statue and tomb represent the Luo tradition of memorialization of the dead. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 7, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, http://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2734.

Preparations for a Funeral

Preparations for a Funeral: Members of the community come together to slaughter animals and participate in funeral ceremonies. ~ Anna M. Steele Scott, Day Dawn in Africa; or, Progress of the Prot. Epis. Mission at Cape Palmas, West Africa (New York: Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge, 1858), https://archive.org/details/daydawninafricao00scot, accessed 3 April 2018.

A Ritual Headdress among the Lou during a Funeral

A Ritual Headdress among the Lou during a Funeral: Ritual headdress worn by the Lou during a burial ceremony ~ Photo courtesy of Phoebe Awiti, Kisumu Museum

Map

Kisumu-Bondo-Usenge Road ~ While this story is not on one specific funeral as a case study, we have included photographs from the grave of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, because he was one of the leading members of the Luo community, and his home has been declared a national heritage site and thus offers an opportunity for us to learn more about this topic. For more details on this, one can visit the late Odinga's homestead which is just a few miles from Bondo town, Siaya County. The homestead is more than 300 miles to the west of Nairobi and more than 50 miles from Kisumu on the Kisumu-Bondo-Usenge road. To access the homestead, you travel by road from Kisumu to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga university in Bondo, and after the university, go another two hundred yards on the Bondo-Usenge road, turn left towards Nyamira Girls High School, and continue for another one hundred or so yards to the main gate of the huge homestead. ~ There is no official website for the homestead, but the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga's homestead, especially his burial ground, is now under the control of the Kenya Government National Museum and Heritage, whose website is: www.museums.or.ke