There are many ways different cultures across the world care for their dead. These long-standing traditions offer a glimpse into the rarely-seen elements of other cultures. One place that holds unique funeral traditions is the country of Ethiopia. Ethiopian people have elaborate, complex rituals around death, dying, and bereavement.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Death and Dying in Ethiopia
- Ethiopian Funeral Service Traditions
- Ethiopian Burial Customs
- Ethiopian Funeral Etiquette
In this guide, we journey across the globe to take a closer look at Ethiopian funerals. We’ll uncover their unique traditions, what an Ethiopian service is like, and what to expect if you attend an Ethiopian funeral yourself.
Death and Dying in Ethiopia
Ethiopia has historically overcome many challenges to get where it is today. Facing death was an ever-present reality in Ethiopia due to famine, disease, and war. Because death was very much a part of life, Ethiopians developed a strong culture around death and grief.
While traditions and expectations largely depend on the region, it’s common for families to grieve together and openly. As soon as a death is announced in a community, relatives, friends, and neighbors flock to the family’s home to offer support.
The leading religions in Ethiopia are Christianity and Islam, though other beliefs are represented in smaller numbers. Both of these primary religions believe in an afterlife, so death isn’t seen as something to be feared.
It’s customary for mourners to use death as an opportunity to fully express their feelings of loss, whether they’re grieving for loved ones or humanity as a whole. These strong beliefs around grief shape much of Ethiopia’s funeral traditions.
Ethiopian Funeral Service Traditions
Ethiopian funeral services don’t look all that different from typical services in North America and Europe. That being said, some unique elements are designed to support the family through this difficult time.
Before the service, there is usually a 3-day wake. This is when friends and family visit the bereaved to offer support. It also gives the extended family time to travel to the service.
During this time, the body is preserved naturally using medicinal plants. It’s usually covered in a cotton cloth and placed in a wooden casket.
During this mourning period, the deceased’s family is not expected to work or do their routine daily tasks. Friends, family, and neighbors gather to take care of the family. It’s largely a communal effort to assist with cooking, cleaning, and work. The family is typically not left alone, even at night, over this entire wake period.
Order of service or program
The actual funeral service isn’t all that different from traditions you might be familiar with in other parts of the world. While these vary depending on the specific family’s religious beliefs, they follow traditional Christian or Islamic traditions.
The service begins with prayers and a eulogy. Friends and family speak about the dead and offer kind words. This is usually a community-wide event, and it’s rare for an Ethiopian funeral to only include close family. Ethiopian funerals are a chance for the community to pay their respects together.
Depending on the family’s wishes, there might be additional traditions. This is especially true for elderly community members. They might have more religious elements included in their services.
Funeral songs are part of saying goodbye in many different cultures. At an Ethiopian funeral, you might expect to hear Ethiopian songs, religious hymns, or prayers.
The exception to this is Islamic funerals. It’s not common for music to be played or sung in Islamic services.
The prayers included in the service also depend on the individual’s religion. At a Christian funeral, it’s common to hear the Lord’s Prayer and Prayer to St. Mary.
At an Islamic funeral, the Islamic funeral prayer (Janazah) is an integral part of this rite. This is a prayer performed by many as a way to pardon the dead.
Duration of service
The service itself is not usually long. It typically lasts around an hour, perhaps more, if customs are particularly complex.
It’s important to remember that the service itself is only a small portion of the mourning event. Guests are also expected to participate in the wake and the graveside service.
After the funeral, guests follow the family in a procession to the final burial location. For Christians, this burial place is usually by a church. In Islam, the body is dressed and prepared to be buried immediately after death. The service is held after the burial.
At the grave, there is often a reading and opportunity for final goodbyes. This graveside burial service is a highly emotional time, and outward displays of grief should be expected and supported.
Ethiopian Burial Customs
Burial customs are a strong part of the grieving process in Ethiopia. Particularly Ethiopians who are devoted to their religion take these customs very seriously.
Views on cremation and burial
Burial is by far the most common choice in Ethiopia and Ethiopian communities. While Christianity allows both cremation and burial, it’s much more common to have a burial in Ethiopia. In Islam, cremation is strictly forbidden. Because the dead are likely to be buried, many families have gravesites where they visit ancestors to pray. Prayer is a big part of mourning the dead.
Burial is such a huge part of Ethiopian funerals that you can find caskets for sale at local markets. Coffin shops are ubiquitous, and it’s not morbid to shop for one’s own casket. These caskets are beautifully designed, with bright, vibrant colors.
Mourning and remembering the dead
Lastly, mourning is one of the most essential elements of any Ethiopian funeral. As explained above, outward displays of grief are not only standard but encouraged. During the wake and funeral service, it’s normal to see men and women wailing loudly and beating their chests in distress.
After the burial, the mourning period is not over. Mourning lasts at least several weeks and sometimes up to multiple months. Women often choose not to wear any fancy clothing, jewelry, or makeup during this time. Men usually refrain from shaving, grow a beard, and wear black. Those who identify as Orthodox Christian have a special celebration on the 40th day of the mourning period.
Ethiopian Funeral Etiquette
Whether you’re attending a funeral service or you stumble across one in your travels, it’s important to be respectful. Funeral etiquette takes many different shapes around the world.
In Ethiopia and Ethiopian communities, it’s polite to wear black to a funeral. Black is the color of mourning in both Christianity and Islam, and it’s easy to recognize a mourning family by their dark attire.
If you’re attending an Islamic funeral, women might need to wear a head-covering. Regardless of religion, dressing conservatively is a good idea for any funeral service.
Just being present is seen as the best way to offer condolences to the family of the deceased. On that note, make sure to arrive on time. Showing up late is seen as a sign of disrespect.
While conversations are welcome, make sure they’re supportive. Avoid laughing or being too upbeat in your language. Let the family know you’re there for them and that you’re sorry for their loss.
It’s common for members of the community to assist with paying for funeral expenses. This is done through a monetary donation. It’s also common to donate supplies like tables, chairs, cookware, and food.
Honor Someone’s Life Through Mourning
Views on death and dying might look different across the globe, but the same principles of mourning ring true. While funerals might be changing, and virtual funerals are the new norm, community support has never been more critical. This is especially true in Ethiopia, where everyone joins together to honor someone’s life.
The finality of death is something Ethiopians know and understand, and they let their grief shine bright. Though death is a natural part of life, it’s also an invitation to live life to the fullest. Allowing everyone to mourn openly is the best way to arrive on the other side of sorrow, stronger, and ready to take on life.
- “Ethiopian Funerals, a Way of Life.” Addison Fortune. 23 March 2019. AddisFortune.news.
- Seyoum, Desta. “Death and Mourning Practices in Rural Ethiopia.” Roots Ethiopia. RootsEthiopia.org.