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Looking To The Past For Inspiration: African Funeral Tributes

In most early African religions, life did not end in death, but transitioned toward a new realm where they could reconnect with their ancestors. Life itself was thought of as simply an increase or decrease of an energy that flowed through them all. When there was sickness, they would say “we are living a little,” and when misfortune struck, it was described as, “reduction of vital life force.”

After death, the personality and individuality of the person would not end or even alter. They continued to live on in the form of ancestors, or people who live on within the community and communicated with their own families. Death began a deeper relationship with nature and the beginning of communication between the visible world and the invisible worlds.

African funeral traditions were extremely well organized. It was believed that if the proper funeral rites were not performed, the deceased would actually return to the living as a wandering spirit. The goal of these African funeral rites was to detach the deceased from the world of the living and help smooth their transition to the next life.

African Funeral FlowersIt was customary to place the deceased’s personal property, including eating utensils, walking sticks, blankets, and other useful items, in the grave. In some areas, dancing would take place at the funeral, providing the deceased with light feet for their journey to the spirit world.

After the funeral, everyone would gather at the deceased’s home for a funeral meal. Often there would be a cleansing ritual before you step foot onto the property in efforts to remove any dust of the graveyard before entering the house. Sometimes pieces of cut aloe would be placed in the water, which was believed to remove bad luck.

Some family members would cut or shave their heads after the funeral. They believed life was concentrated in the hair and removing it symbolized death. It’s regrowth indicated the strengthening of life.

African funerals are community affairs in which the whole community feels the grief of the bereaved and shares in it. The purpose of the activities preceding the funeral is to comfort, encourage and heal those who are hurting.

So, How Do You Incorporate Traditional African Funeral Practices in Today’s World?

A traditional African funeral tribute is a perfect way to honor a lost loved one who was captivated with the spirit of Africa.

What to Include In Your African Funeral Tribute

• Personal Belongings – It was customary for the most personal belongings of the deceased, such as their eating utensils, walking sticks, blankets, etc., to be buried with them.

Incorporate small personal belongings into your African funeral tribute. Pick items that are easily recognized as your loved ones, like a decoration from their home or a favorite piece of jewelry. This will prompt fond memories for all of your family and friends.

• Seashells Seashells (especially white) are associated with the spirit world in many early African religions. They believed the world of the dead was connected to the living by the ocean or water.

• Broken Pottery Pottery that belonged to the departed was often broken on top of their grave so their spirit would not come looking for them. Incorporate broken bottle pieces into your African funeral tribute. You could use some of your loved one’s items, or terracotta pots.

• Lamps/Fire Oil lamps or bonfires were used in traditional African funerals because the light pointed the way to glory. Create a tribute around a central flame or flame bowl.

• Mirror PiecesMirror pieces and other shiny objects were often used in traditional African funerals. It was thought that their ancestral spirits could be seen in the reflection. Use mirror pieces, gold or other reflective pieces in your African funeral tribute.

• African DecorationsBrightly-colored batik and woven fabrics, silver and gold-colored metals, grasses, feathers and shells can all be incorporated into a African funeral tribute. Just think about what was available at that time. If you are of African decent, look up what types of clothing and accessories were used in your early culture.

Traditional African Symbols Adinkra are visual symbols that represent concepts or aphorisms. They were originally created by the Akan of Ghana and the Gyaman of Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa.

African Symbols - SankofaSankofa – Sankofa is a word in the language of Ghana that translates to English “go back and take.” It is often associated with the African proverb, Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi, which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” This symbolizes the importance of our past.

During a building excavation in Lower Manhattan in 1991, a cemetery for free and enslaved Africans was discovered. Over 400 remains were identified, but there was one coffin that really stood out. On the wooden lid were 51 iron tacks in a heart-shape that is believed to be a Sankofa.

African Symbols Nyabi Biribi wo soroBiribi wo soroa symbols which means “God is in the Heavens.” It is used as a symbol of hope and a reminder that God’s dwelling place is in the heaven, where he can listen to all prayers. It is associated with the proverb, Nyame biribi wo soro na ma embeka mensa (God is in the heavens, let it reach me.)

At the site of the African burial ground in Manhattan, there is now a national monument memorial, complete with a wall of remembrance, memorial wall, walk-in ancestral chamber, circle of diaspora, spiral processional ramp and an ancestral libations court. It is an incredible memorial to the African peoples who had been long forgotten. On the entrance of the ancestral chamber, you will find a biribi wo soro symbol.

The very last part of a traditional African funeral actually happens 7 years later where there is a huge celebration with all of the family and community in memory of the deceased.

If you are interested in a custom funeral tribute, ask your local florist! They would love to make something like this happen for you and your family.

You Might Also Like:

Personalized & Creative Funeral Flowers
Floral Design With You In Mind: How To Order Custom Flowers
The ART of Dying by Ty Leslie
In Lieu Of Flowers Doesn’t Mean No Funeral Flowers
Are Fireside Baskets Appropriate For Funerals?


  1. Lucy Rankin says:

    We need to write a funeral tribute/resolution on paper to be read at the service.

    We need the wording for the written tribute

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