Last funeral rites in many Ugandan tribes and cultures is marked as a way of celebrating the life of the deceased and to some it also marks the end of the mourning period after a family has lost a loved one. We look at the last funeral rite in the Acholi ethnic group, who live in Northern Uganda and in the eastern part of South Sudan.
In Uganda, when a person dies, many tribes take some time mourning. There is always no defined time to end mourning, a person can mourn for a loved one for the whole of their life, or for a year or a month. It is at the last funeral rites that many families choose the heir or for more organized families where the deceased left a will, it will be read because that is the time the whole family is gathered together.
As soon as the last funeral rites are performed for the deceased, that ceremonial officially marks the end of mourning, though one may continue mourning personally. Among the Baganda as soon as the last funeral rites are performed then the family gets back to normal life. One is not allowed to perform any other ceremony/function in a home before a last funeral rite is held, no parties, weddings before that is carried out.
Unlike the Baganda, the Acholis continue with life normally, weddings, and other parties can take place in the home even before the last funeral rite is celebrated. The Acholis will not let the last funeral rites of the person who died later be performed before the last funeral rites of the person who died earlier.
Among the Acholi tribe, the last funeral rite also marks the day death is chased away from the home and the spirit of the deceased is brought back home where it belongs. This is marked by family, friends and in-laws gathering and making merry, including dancing, eating and drinking a lot of alcohol and it’s always a two day affair.
After the family of the deceased has gathered for the ceremony, one male and female member of the family, she carrying lit up spear grass, while the man carries a flute and a spear. The two go to the entrance of the home (The Acholis don’t have gates), the woman shaking the burning grass while the man blows the flute and they are heard calling “Come home, Come and we go home”. The woman with the fire leads the way while calling ‘come and we go home’, followed by the man blowing his flute, and both enter the hut and go to the inner room. The spear is used for protection.
The two then come out of the hut; it is believed that when the two are calling ‘come home’, they are calling the spirit of the deceased to return home and they say the spirit of the dead is around the home. And that when it hears the flute and the voices calling, it knows that it is time to return home so it will follow them and enter into the house where it will stay permanently.
After the spirit is brought home, a local brew made from millet is taken to the grave or graves of the deceased depending on how many deceased rites are being concluded.The elders gathered in the home later on in the night, drink the local brew that has been placed on the grave. They do that as a sign that they have served the deceased some local brew, then all visitors will also join in the alcohol party. Relatives of the deceased then have their hair shaved off.
The function begins on Friday through Saturday to Sunday evening when everybody returns to their homes. When the merry making begins, there is a lot of singing, dancing and drumming throughout the ceremony. The Acholis have the last funeral rites dances (Myel Lyel), otole, which are performed at the ceremony; they also do Bwola which is performed when the deceased is an elder, clan leader or chief.
Every married daughter of the family is expected to bring local brew to the last funeral rites. She is also expected to go with her husband and children and she is expected to cook for them at the ceremony.
All men who have married into that family will be expected to bring a goat or goats along with them as a sign of respect to their in-laws and at some point they are called together and another contribution is made amongst them. They are asked to contribute money for goats or even a cow to the in-laws as a part of concluding the rites which they call culu ayika (literally meaning ‘paying the price for the burial’)
The in-laws in turn give them back a cow as a sign of appreciating their gesture for honouring the invite. Part of that meat from the cow given to them is taken back home by their wives, while the other half is cooked by the mother-in-law for them to eat.
At the start of the function, a tent is built from dried spear grass for the spirit of the deceased that has been brought back home. A goat is later slaughtered inside the tent towards the end of the ceremony and everybody in that home, apart from the married daughters of that home, eats the meat from the goat as part of the concluding ritual.
This tent is the centre of all rituals among the Acholis at a funeral rite, so that when the mother-in-law together with her colleagues, cooks food at the ceremony, they are expected to take it to this tent before it is served to the in-laws.
The mother-in-law is expected to wake up as early as 5am to begin cooking her meal because by 7am the in-laws are expected to eat this food. After eating the food served to them at 7:00am, the in-laws appreciate the mother-in-law by returning the dishes in which they are served with some money which is of no defined amount.
Sounds of drum beats, calabashes and mourning songs which people sing to curse and rebuke death but also praising the deceased, are heard. Very early on Sunday morning, everybody at the ceremony picks spear grass and the ritual to chase death away from that home then begins. People will run to different directions of the compound, to any nearby bush, while cursing death and commanding it never to return to that home again, and then they throw the spear grass in the bush and come back and continue with the merry making until evening when everybody returns to their own home.
With modernization, today so many things have changed and people hold the ceremony for only one day, with mass for catholic families, or a prayer service for the Anglican families, a prayer for Moslem families; they serve a meal to their guests, read the will if any or choose an heir, and the ceremony is concluded.