Zulu Funeral Customs

South Africa is considered the rainbow nation, as it abounds with many cultures and religions. You might find yourself being invited to a funeral outside of your culture and/or religion, and you would like to pay your respects. If this is the case, it is worth being aware of some expected etiquette, when it comes to different religions’ customs. Here is a brief overview of what can be expected when attending a Zulu funeral.

Zulu culture

Within the Zulu culture, burial rites differ per region of South Africa, depending on the region, the day and time of day will be influenced as to when the burial will take place. Regardless, in the Zulu culture the deceased are treated with respect, as they go on to join the ancestors of the surviving family. It is also believed that by providing them with a dignified send-off it will ensure that the deceased does not come back to cause trouble for the living. If the family can afford it and depending on seniority e.g. grandfather or father, the deceased is wrapped in a cowhide. The deceased is also often buried with personal belongings, which is believed to assist them on their journey.

If you are in a city, you can expect that the deceased will be taken home, transported in a coffin, this is a two-fold process, one so that mourners can then file past to pay their last respects and secondly so that the soul can find its way back to the family home. From here they are taken to ‘Bhekabezayo’ – which is their own dedicated burial site, as municipal cemeteries are considered unholy. These burial sites are also usually situated close to their family home, for the family and friends to continue paying respects and to ensure that the souls of family past, are kept happy. At no point is cremation considered, as it is seen as a curse on the deceased individual.
Part of the Zulu tradition is that woman do not go near the graveside and so have a demarcated area within which they sit and mourn from.

When it comes to feeding the many guests, as Zulu funerals are normally a community affair and family come from far and wide, there is a dual ritual of killing an animal. Dependent once again on the seniority of the person who has passed on, an ox, cow or goat will be slaughtered. Barring being food, the killing of the animal, especially an ox, is seen as accompanying the deceased. There is also consumption of Ukhamba, which is a traditional brew, that allows for communication with the deceased.

At a Zulu funeral it is expected that the deceased is celebrated, and that tribute is paid to their soul, so that they have a good journey to the ancestors and the mourners do this by feasting and celebrating the life.

This is a very brief overlook of a Zulu funeral, it is steeped in tradition and much respect is placed on the deceased. In the end no matter the religion or custom, a general rule is to be courteous and follow or ask if you are not sure what to expect next.