Nigerian Funerals: Customs, Ceremony & What to Expect

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In Nigeria, Christian, Muslim, and traditional African funeral beliefs come together. In the most populous country in Africa, you may be more important dead than alive. 

At the heart of Nigeria are funerals. Nigerians believe their deceased family becomes an ancestor when they die. From lavish meals to dancing pallbearers and animal sacrifices, no expense is saved to plan a Nigerian burial. Funerals are so important that families save up for their loved one's burial instead of medical expenses. 

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Nigeria is home to over 250 ethnic groups. Each group has its own beliefs and traditions. The country is split between Christians and Muslims. Nigerians may go to church or pray, but they also introduce African music and ritual into their daily life. 

Whether you're curious about Nigerian funerals or are attending the death of a loved one in Africa, keep reading to learn more. 

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How Nigerians View Death and Dying

Nigerian’s are influenced by Muslim and Christian religions. They believe that when you die, God will judge your soul and you will be released to heaven. Traditional Nigerians believe in reincarnation. 

At a Nigerian funeral, you may find a woman buried in a traditional metal casket. She may have had her abdomen cut open before burial because she was infertile. In this way, traditional religion practices blend with local religions. 

Nigerians’ belief systems depend on the tribe. The list of tribes, belief systems, and cultural differences between tribes is long, but there are three main tribes. To understand the Nigerian funeral will depend on the specific tribe, but getting to know these main three is a good place to start. 

  • Hausa-Fulani: The Hausa and Fulani tribes make up over 36 percent of Nigeria’s population. Often marriage links exist between these Northern tribes. These tribes are Muslim. For Muslims, death is not the end. Life on earth is a test in preparation for the afterlife. Fulfillment of religious duties like fasting, giving zakat or donations, and prayer lead to a beautiful afterlife. 
  • Yoruba: The second-largest tribe in Nigeria adds up to 15 percent of the population. Tribe members are Christians or Muslims. The Yoruba focus on ancestors in the burial rituals. Like in Christianity and Islam, traditional Yoruba religions believe that death is not the end of life. They believe in reincarnation within the family. The deceased will come back to life as a newborn child in the same family.
  • Igbo: Like the Yoruba tribe, the Igbo form 15 percent of Nigeria’s population. The Igbo tribe has the largest population of Christians in Nigeria. Igbo people believe the afterlife is filled with ancestors. Their loved one can only reincarnate if correct burial traditions are followed. 

Most Nigerians believe in an afterlife. Nigerians may struggle with reconciling death with their religion and tribal traditions.

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Traditions for a Nigerian Funeral Ceremony

The biggest life event in Nigeria is a funeral. Funerals come with either celebration or mourning. If all burial customs aren’t followed, family members fear that their loved one won’t be an ancestor and they will haunt the living instead. 

Funerals are the focal point for family members to gather. They strengthen the community in remembrance of loved ones. Immediate and extended family and the community are expected to pay these high costs. Many families choose to take out a loan. In small villages, funeral costs can lead families further into poverty. 

Posters are printed to announce the death of a loved one. Some families choose to hire performers for entertainment. Also, sewing expensive clothes for the deceased and immediate family is common. Traditional customs include animal sacrifice, elaborate feasts, and dancing. Often, you will find a mix of traditional African and religious customs at a Nigerian ceremony. 

The type of burial a Nigerian person will receive depends on the life they led when they died, and the religion they followed. Depending on the tribe, Muslim or Christian burial practices are followed. Careful attention is given to follow any wishes of the deceased. If wishes aren’t followed, Nigerians believe the spirit may not make it to the afterlife.

Pre-funeral customs

Nigerian tribes have different pre-funeral customs with some similarities. Most Nigerians aren’t cremated. Cremation is forbidden in both Islam and traditional African religions. It disrupts reincarnation and prevents the deceased from reuniting with their ancestors. 

There is usually a period of mourning. Some bodies are buried right away while others are taken to the mortuary to await burial. The Yoruba people wait from a month up to a year to save up for the expense. The Igbo tribe buries deceased within two days and then saves up for a lavish second burial after. 

The Hausa-Fulani tribe follows Muslim customs. Muslim bodies are not embalmed or cremated. They are washed and draped with a burial shroud before burial. As soon as a Muslim dies their face is turned toward Mecca—Islam’s holiest city. Unlike Christian services, Muslims bury their loved ones as soon as possible.

Typical order of service

There is no typical order of service among the Nigerian people. Services are unique to each tribe and influenced by Christian or Muslim funerals. The service may be elaborate or simple and parts of the Bible or Quran are read. People praise ancestors through song and dance. 

The Igbo funeral service is an example of the strong community ties that exist between tribe members. They choose the day of their service based on the likelihood of attendance. The service shows the importance of celebrating the deceased as they take their ancestral place in the afterlife. Below is an example of an Igbo order of service: 

  • All the guests eat and drink at a night vigil preceding the ceremony. The vigil is as elaborate as the memorial service with traditional performers and songs. 
  • If the family is Christian, the body is moved to a church and part of the ceremony is lead by a pastor in a Christian ceremony.
  • The deceased is moved back into the village. A prayer to the dead is made by a medicine man to make sure the spirit will cross over.
  • Various animal sacrifices are performed. A dog is killed in the iwa nkita anya sacrifice before burial. The blood of other animals is poured into the earth for the deceased. 
  • A drum announces the lowering of the remains and prayers are said to lay the deceased to rest. 
  • Women can add sand into the remains or the limb of a goat is put into the grave. 

The Igbo believe the spirit of the deceased is only at rest after the second burial. This is a celebration for the family to remember the dead. To modernize funerals, the Christian church put into place restrictions on Igbo customs like animal sacrifices.

Dancing, songs, and hymns

Funeral songs and performances are based on religious and traditional customs. You may hear traditional songs like “Amazing Grace” at an Igbo church service. At a Yoruba ereisinku or “funeral play” you will hear ethnic drums. 

Performances are a symbol of status. Families often hire expensive bands to sing and dance throughout the village. They are also a tribute to the deceased. Family members worry that without these multi-day performances, the deceased will be unhappy. Then their spirit won't cross over or they won't be able to become an ancestor.

Duration

For Muslims, the prayer continues three, seven, and 40 days after death. The Yoruba people don’t bury the deceased for two to three days while they make arrangements. Their funeral services last a week. 

The Christian church put restrictions on the Igbo people. They have to bury their deceased within two weeks. Igbo funerals usually only last a few days and the festivities are reserved for a second burial.

Etiquette at a Nigerian Funeral

Etiquette at a funeral will depend on the location of the family in Nigeria and their religion. You can often expect to follow Christian or Muslims customs. 

Attire

With so many different customs you may be wondering what to wear. Casual clothing should never be worn to a Nigerian funeral. White is a celebratory color and guests should opt for black or red instead. Women should always cover their hair with a scarf to show respect for the grieving family. 

You will find members of the same family wearing similar clothing or aso ebi. Families will choose the same patterned clothes to wear for the service. 

Typical mood

The mood of a Nigerian funeral will depend on who the deceased is, how they died, and the type of life they lived. If the deceased had many children and lived a long life you can expect a celebration. For those that died by accident, the mood is somber and celebrations aren’t expected. 

The Igbo people view the death of a child as a tragedy not to be celebrated. Families grieve in private for children and adults. They celebrate as elders take their place as ancestors in the afterlife. 

Offering gifts, sympathy cards, and flowers

Donations are most commonly accepted at most traditional and religious services. In the Yoruba culture, money will be collected from relatives to buy food and drink. 

Choosing flowers can be tricky. At Islamic funerals, flowers aren’t customary, but you may want to bring a bouquet to a Christian service. 

Burial and Remembering the Dead in Nigeria

The deceased are buried in graves accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of an animal. Ceremonies to remember the deceased are practiced even among tribes that identify as Christian or Muslim. The ultimate goal is for the deceased to be memorialized as an ancestor, which only happens if correct rituals are performed. Ritual slaughterings and performances for ancestors happen regularly in traditional tribes. 

Expressions of sorrow also last a long time. In traditional Igbo ceremonies, the wives of the dead would go into isolation for two months and weep.

Paying Respects at a Nigerian Funeral

In the Igbo culture, there is a saying⁠—If one person cooks for a group, they eat all the food, but if a group cooks for one person, he will not eat all the food. A Nigerian funeral is the product of its community. You can expect a big party celebrating the deceased’s new life as an ancestor.

It is difficult to define a Nigerian funeral by its customs. As long as you pay attention to the grieving family’s wishes and do some research ahead of time, you'll be prepared to attend.


Sources

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