Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Ethiopian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Republic of Kiribati funeral traditions and Chinese Taoist funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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Community members visit and comfort the grieving family during a three-day mourning period before the funeral. This also gives relatives time to arrive and pay their respects. They preserve the body with traditional medicinal plants and cover it with a cotton cloth in a wooden casket.
Close family and friends of the deceased bring food and drinks. The grieving family isn’t expected to cook, work, or do other daily tasks. It’s the community’s responsibility to take care of that for the family.
If the deceased’s family doesn’t have a large house, they set up a white tent outside to hold more guests. The tent usually stays up for about a week as community members visit and comfort the family. Relatives also may stay the night so the family isn’t alone.
Expression of Grief
Everyone grieves openly by loudly crying and wailing, saying the deceased’s name, and beating their foreheads and chests. Physically injuring yourself to express grief is common and even expected in certain areas of Ethiopia. And crying shows that the deceased was loved. Sometimes, funeral singers come sing and tell stories to help people freely express their emotions.
Women also may scratch their face, tear out hair, throw themselves on the ground, faint, or do other harmful acts to express grief. Men may chant songs and share stories about the deceased.
Some people may choose to sit in silence rather than talk with the grieving family. Physically being there is the most important thing. Conversations are still welcome, but laughter is rude. Elder community members may say a prayer or comforting words.
Ethiopian Funeral Celebration
Rather than being a small ceremony for close family, an Ethiopian funeral is typically a large, community-wide event. As many as 1,000 people may attend the funeral. Everyone gathers for the funeral celebration with rituals depending on the deceased’s religion. Per the 2007 Ethiopia census, the two main Ethiopian religions are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian with 43.5% and Islam with 33.9%.
Also, depending on the deceased’s age, some funerals may have more elaborate rituals than others. For example, an Ethiopian funeral for an elderly community member may have more funeral celebrations. The funeral for a child may be less of a community-wide event and just for close family and friends.
After the funeral, there’s a procession and gathering at the burial location, usually near a church or cemetery.
Orthodox Christians typically can choose their own burial location, or their family can choose if they didn’t. They may choose their ancestor’s burial location or another meaningful location. For this reason, the deceased may not end up being buried by their spouse.
The Islamic burial ritual involves bathing and dressing the body and then saying a prayer. The burial also is on the same day as the death, rather than having the three-day wake.
After the burial, mourning lasts for several weeks or even months. While mourning, women may shave their head and wear a black scarf over it. They also may choose to not wear makeup, fancy clothing, or jewelry. Men may grow a long beard and wear only black clothing. Partaking in these customs depends on your closeness to the deceased, your age, and other factors.
Orthodox Christians also have a celebration on the 40th day of the mourning period. There’s a memorial service followed by a feast with hundreds of people. Family members decorate a small altar with a photo of the deceased, flowers, candles, and other decorations. Everyone shares stories and memories with the deceased to comfort the grieving family.
Community members pay their respects by making a monetary donation to help with funeral expenses. Families are members of local community groups designed for raising funeral funds. Each group may have 50 to 100 families and they meet monthly to make fund decisions. They also help gather funeral supplies, such as tables, chairs, cookware, and other items.