1. Burial Traditions
Students will read an account of memorial ceremonies held after the death of a Hwana (a group living near the Yungur and the Ga’anda) chief as described in 1931. They will then address ways in which they and their families remember and commemorate the lives of their deceased relatives.
The quoted author was C. K. Meek, a British Colonial officer and government anthropologist. He wrote:
“One month after the secret burial of the body, a log-shaped effigy covered in a white gown was displayed at the pre-burial ceremony. All members of the community threw seeds of guinea corn [sorghum] over the wooden figure so that the ‘soul’ would not go hungry….
“The corn thrown over the effigy was collected and converted into beer and flour for use at the funeral feast which was held at a later period. Meanwhile the effigy had been dismantled, but its place taken by a pot with a strip of cloth tied round the neck. This pot, which was set up on a forked branch beside the dead chief’s hut was carefully tended by the late chief’s widows, being washed regularly every day. At the final rites, i.e. the funeral feast held during the dry season, the pot was carried around and all the people saluted and called: 'Go carefully, go carefully.' At the conclusion of the feast the pot was smashed and thrown away, as a sign that the chief and his people had parted forever.” (Meek, 1931, 439–440)
After commenting on the above account, students can tell of their experiences, reactions, and memories of burials and memorial services that they have attended for deceased friends and relatives. Why do people bring flowers, candles, and messages to the scene of an accident where a friend lost his/her life? What do the students feel are the perceived effects of people sharing a tragedy as opposed to mourning alone?
2. Memorializing Ancestors
Students can appreciate differences in practices as they learn that throughout Africa many peoples believe that ancestor spirits participate in the activities of the living with whom they work to make life and the afterlife better. They may review what they have seen in the exhibition, Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley, recalling the ways that contact with the ancestors is maintained including making offerings to ancestors, carving figurative sculptures as commemmoratives, modeling ceramic vessels where ancestral spirits can abide, preserving relics of the deceased, and celebrating elaborate masquerades in honor of those who preceded them.
Give students the opportunity to interview family and religious leaders about traditions of memorializing ancestors. Do they hold any special celebrations? Do they leave flowers on graves or light candles at altars? Do they remember loved ones by sharing a family scrapbook or photo album? In addition, investigate the rituals practiced by diverse groups, including, among others, Mexico’s Dias de los Muertos; Qing Ming, the Chinese “Clear and Bright” Festival; Buddhist annual Obon festivals; and All Saints’ Day in the Philippines.