According to Maasai legend, in the beginning there was no death.
Once upon a time, there was a man called Natero Kop. He was the first man that Naiteru-kop brought to earth. Then Naiteru-kop called Leeyio and said to him, “When a man dies and you get rid of his body, you must remember to say, ‘Man dies and returns again, the moon dies and stays far away.’”
Many months passed before someone died. When the child of a neighbour finally died, Leeyio was called to get rid of the body. When he had done so, he made a mistake and said, “The moon dies and returns again, man dies and remains far away.” After that, nobody survived death.
A year later, it so happened that Leeyio’s son died. So Leeyio got rid of the body and said, “Man dies and returns again, the moon dies and remains far away.” On hearing these words Naiteru-kop said to Leeyio, “Too late! Because of your mistake, death entered the world the day your neighbour’s child died.” That is how death came to be and that is why, to this day, when a man dies he never comes back but when the moon dies it always returns. Only those who live to be very old are remembered by the community.
Death is a mystery for the Maasai. They never like to see anyone in their village die. When an adult is about to die, they are taken on a cow to be hidden outside the village. Someone stays with the dying person until their final moment. If, however, a person dies inside the village, his body is burned and the people go away.
The Maasai are divided into five clans, and then into at least thirteen groups. Each of these has a degree of independence and the observance of rituals and traditions is not the same for all.
Speaking of death, a Maasai may say etua, which means, he is dead. This is said of every living thing no longer alive, whether it be a plant, an animal, or a human being. To indicate the dead, the term Il-oo-tuata is used. Speaking of human beings, however, the Maasai prefer to use the word e-shomo – he is gone. They also use the term e-irura – he is asleep. These are not simply euphemisms but indicate a vague notion that death is not a sudden end. While in the past they used to use the word e-shomo, today the Maasai prefer to say e-shomo Enkai – he is gone to God. This might have been added with the influence of Christian missionaries, but it has yet to be proved. It is said that the Maasai do not believe in life after death but some of their traditions involve a vague notion of a presence that continues somewhere else.
When an important elder dies, his entire body is anointed with oil. The burial is performed in various ways. Usually, the body is placed in the open air, on its side, wrapped in a skin, at a certain distance from the village. This ceremony is called e-nukata – the wrapping. No one is ever buried naked. All ornaments are removed, broken, and placed close to the body. The same happens to small children’s necklaces of small pearls.
If the person that died was a respectable elder, a tomb is prepared for him called en-kurare. This means that his body, after burial, is covered with a large heap of stones – a cairn. People passing by add a stone to it and say a brief prayer.During prayers, the Maasai call on the names of some of their great ancestors. After the death of an elder, his sons gather to discuss the inheritance which mainly consists in the herd of cows that belonged to their father. From then on, they wear the olkataar, a simple bracelet of undecorated iron that men put on their wrists to show their father is dead.