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 Botswana funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Ecuadorian funeral traditions and Argentinian funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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Botswana Death Beliefs
When someone dies in Botswana, the Batswana believe they become ancestral spirits. They believe ancestral spirits have the power to cause sickness and bad luck for the living. To prevent the spirit from causing harm, their family makes sure the funeral properly honors their memory.
Typically, when an elderly family member dies, it’s considered a natural death. But when a young person dies, it’s considered the cause of witchcraft, evil spirits, unhappy ancestors, or other disturbances.
The wake, also known as night vigil, is at the deceased’s home or a family member’s home. Mourners pay their respects, pray, sing, and give speeches in honor of the deceased. The deceased’s family also may provide snacks and tea for everyone while mourning until morning.
Botswana Funeral Service
A Botswana funeral is a sad occasion rather than a celebration. It’s a large event many people attend from family and friends to neighbors and community members. However, if it’s a funeral for a child or infant, they aren’t usually public and only for the immediate family. They’re typically on Saturdays starting in the early morning and lasting the entire day.
Since Christianity is the main religion of Botswana, a Botswana funeral typically follow these traditions. Those who are wealthy tend to have more elaborate funerals, but many families can’t afford expensive funeral elements.
Traditionally, families buried the deceased in their home village and wrapped the body in a black cattle skin. They placed the body in the fetal position and buried them facing west — which they believe is the direction of the ancestral world. Today, they’re buried in cemeteries typically outside of their village. Those who live in rural areas tend to bury the deceased as quickly as possible. At the burial, everyone sings Christian hymns.
There’s usually a meal to honor the deceased after the burial, but like the funeral, it isn’t a celebration. Traditionally, they served simple dishes without salt. Today, they may serve beef dishes and a non-alcoholic beverage called Gemere made of ground ginger, cream of tartar, sugar, and a few other ingredients.
Many people are members of burial societies that provide emotional and monetary support during grief. When a member’s loved one passes away, the other members donate funeral food and funds for the funeral expenses. Each society tends to have members who have a similar social and economic status. They usually meet monthly and although they need to pay a subscription to join, it’s a low amount so everyone can afford it.
The typical mourning period lasts one year or longer. During this time, as a way to symbolize their sadness, women wear black dresses; men wear black hats and a piece of black or blue cloth; and widows wear a blue cloth over their shoulders. They usually wear these during the entire mourning period. Other immediate family members also may choose to wear a black or blue cloth, while extended family and friends may wear a blue or black necklace or bracelet.