Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Rwandan funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Puerto Rican funeral traditions and Filipino ethnic groups’ funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Religious and Death Beliefs
Christianity is the most common religion in Rwanda. Specifically, about 57% of Christians identify as Catholic and about 26% as Protestant. A few other popular religions are Seventh-Day Adventist at about 11% of the population and Islam at about 5% of the population.
Many Rwandans believe that spirits continue on after death. For this reason, they consider their family as not only the living but also those who have passed and those who will be born in the future.
To please their ancestors, they perform important funeral rituals to show their respect. If they don’t show respect by performing rituals and leaving offerings, they believe the spirit may abandon their family and evil spirits could hurt them. A few other superstitions when someone dies include not eating meat or specific drinks, not working, not having major celebrations, and other various rituals.
After a Death
When someone dies, there is a mourning period before the burial takes place. The mourning period length depends on the family’s preferences but is typically three to seven days long. During this time, mourners pay their respects to the deceased. They build a remembrance fire to sit around while eating and sharing stories about the deceased.
Ceremonies with music and dancing typically play a major role in Rwandan celebrations, but not for a Rwandan funeral. They grieve their loss in silence rather than with a celebration of life with music and dancing. Depending on the deceased’s religion, they read scriptures at the service, which also may take place graveside. The casket also may be open or closed, depending on personal preference.
For the burial, they choose one family member to prepare and dress the body for the burial. Then, they give this person a special gift. After the graveside ceremony and burial, there is a ceremonial hand washing. Even well after the funeral, mourners visit the gravesite on special days or whenever they wish to visit.