Death and Dying in the African Context

Death and Dying in the African Context


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



An African person prefers a slow and lingering death not through the aid of a machine

but a natural prolongation of the dying process so that he or she could make their peace,

say farewell to friends and relatives, and give final instructions to immediate relatives.



Death and Dying in the African Context

By Gerald Onyewuchi Onukwugha


Death is certain in human existence, though we do battle with its inevitability. Despite its ubiquity, it is a phenomenon conceived differently, depending on cultural, ideological, or idiosyncratic orientation. These differences are apparent because of my multicultural exposure of death in both the African context, the biblical Middle East, and the modern American view of death and dying.

Theologically, death is defined as the separation of soul and body. But as Professor Philip Keane pointed out in a lecture, no one has seen the soul depart the body. This definition, according to German theologian Karl Rahner, fails to indicate “the specifically human element of human death.” Philosophically, death is defined as the cessation of the integrated functioning of the human organism. This disintegration, of course, is like “the separation of body and soul” definition not an observable definition.

We are on more scientific ground with the physiological definition. Here, death is conceived as a cessation of breath and heartbeat. Medical advance, however, has made this definition somewhat obsolete. For we have observed in heart attack patients, the cessation of both breath and heartbeat. Yet these patients have been revived; thus we can say such patients have died at least once.

Seemingly, there is no perfect answer to the meaning of death. We have no eyewitness testimony: no one has died and come back to life and painted a clear picture of what death really is. From the Christian or religious perspective, death is not the end of life, but rather a transformation. For Paul in his letter to the Thesssalonians (4:13), death is a kind of sleep: “We want you to be quite certain, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep. To make sure that you do not grieve for them, as others do who have no hope.”

Despite the religious hope, the unpredictability and inevitability of death fascinate and frighten the broad range of humanity. This fear and fascination is quite evident in natural disasters and in acts of war and terror. Thus there continues an ingrained denial of the gruesomeness and finality of death. An African adage likens the dead body in procession to that of dried wood. The natural yearning to live on has generated such beliefs as the Greek immortality of the soul or the various Eastern notions of reincarnation, which appear frequently in African cultures.

But even in less violent and disastrous circumstances, death, especially in our techno-culture, is a challenging project. For many, the hard reality is that they die in a hospital, usually isolated and in pain – tethered to a frightening array of high-tech equipment. From some perspectives, this techno-environment is another denial of the naturalness of death. Many would prefer to die at home in familiar and beloved surroundings. In traditional cultures, the family comes together and children are involved in the conversation. The dying person is comforted and encouraged to embrace death with dignity.

Though death in inevitable, the African both denies and accepts death in daily life. This double perspective can be seen in a set of beliefs sometimes referred to as “ancestor worship” or “reincarnation.” Many Africans believe the spirit of the deceased remains in the world and that the dead person can come back embodied in another person.

It is in light of this belief that John S. Mbiti asserted, “For the Africans, death is a separation and not an annihilation; the dead person is suddenly cut off from the human society and yet the corporate group clings to him. This is shown through the elaborate funeral rites, as well as other methods of keeping in contact with the departed” (African Religion and Philosophy, 1970, p. 46). The relatives of the dead believe that even though the soul of their dead relative has gone up to the sky or near to God, it remains also near to them and can be approached through prayers, libations, and offerings.

The Igbo views death as a natural rhythm of life. In a popular tale, they pass down a story of the genesis of death. At one time there was no death. People were fascinated by the idea of living forever. They appealed to the gods to guarantee eternal life. The final decision was left to the outcome of a marathon race between the frog and the dog. If the frog won, death would come into the world; if the dog won man would gain eternal life.

The people were excited about their opportunity, believing the dog would easily win the race. Once the race started, the frog continued at a slow pace, non-stop. The dog ran fast, but stopped often to eat garbage from cans. The frog’s approach of slow and steady won the day, the dog losing the race and thus the genesis of death.

Africans, like others, resist the daily contemplation of death. Often people do not write their living wills. I recall the time when my father began writing his will, four years prior to his death. In some consternation, I walked about ten miles to discuss this matter with my mother. My mother attempted to console me by saying that my father’s death was not imminent – that a person can write his or her will twenty years prior to his death. Of course, my father’s death was much closer.

Unlike many Americans, Africans do not tend to set aside money for their funerals while still alive. They do not make preparations towards their dying. They prefer to leave the burden to their living relatives.  I was quite shocked and frightened when my American pastor showed me where he will be buried when he dies. As an African, I found this pastor’s openness about death strange and unbelievable.

This death-denying attitude is observed in how Africans conceptualize death. The term “transition” is used to refer to dying. It is very rare to hear people say a person has died. Saying that the person has transitioned in the African context means that he or she has gone to the next life. The term also implies that the person has not left us, that the person has simply changed form into a spiritual existence. The term “passed on” is also used frequently to express transition.

At the Carmelite Monastery in Waterford, Ireland, an anonymous reflection clearly captures this African transitional view of death. It says, “Death is nothing at all – I have slipped away into the next room. Whatever we were to each other that we are still. Call me by own familiar name. Speak to me in the easy way, which you always used. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let it be spoken without effort. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is absolutely unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of your mind because I am out of your sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is past; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before – only better, infinitely happier and forever.”

This Irish view is an ancient and universal view; though still retained in African tribal life, it has been lost in our more modern, materialistic world. In our traditional cultural experience, man is born, he dies, and continues to exist in other realms.  This circle of birth, death, and continued existence is commonly used symbolically in African art as cosmographic images. The dead is not in a distant heaven, but still remains among the living. In times of crisis and need, and sometimes, in times of joy, departed loved ones are viewed as smiling down on the living, looking out for them and assisting them. Thus even though it is a stressful time to have a loved one die, people find comfort in the belief that loved ones, though not physically present, are yet spiritually present.

Though there exists this consolation of an afterlife and its connection with present life, traditional Africans hold to the sanctity of life and fear death, for it is an enemy to life. Fear of death lead people to use charms and juju for self-defense; though death is invincible, it can be held at bay. Life is to be preserved at all costs. Thus, an average African would not be inclined to discontinue life-sustaining treatment once it was started. Likewise, Africans do not favor any artificial means of terminating life, such as assisted suicide, which is viewed as sacrilegious. In any event, such decisions would be arrived at through family consensus. It would be offensive to other family members and extended relatives if just one of them rushed into decision-making without at least considering what  others thought and felt.

Even though statistics show many people prefer a quick and painless death, ideally while one is asleep, it is different in Africa. An African person prefers a slow and lingering death not through the aid of a machine but a natural prolongation of the dying process so that he or she could make their peace, say farewell to friends and relatives, and give final instructions to immediate relatives. Though it rarely occurs today in our modern cities with its sanitized hospitals, death is preferred in one’s home with the family providing comfort to the dying person.

The spiritual aspects of caring for the dying in medical settings have been neglected. So much emphasis is place on the physical care of the dying that spirituality is often overlooked. Often healthcare providers, untrained in the subject of spirituality, do not recognize special efforts are needed to respect the cultural traditions of the dying. A more satisfactory result in caring for African patients would be achieved if the African approach to decision-making is honored. The healthcare provider foremost must recognize the values of the African patient, who values highly the sanctity of life.

Man is a “being unto death,” Martin Heidegger pointed out. And this death is enigmatic, a mystery – a reality beyond full human comprehension. It is nevertheless, from the African perspective, the total negation of the sound health of human life – the height of all evils. Among the Igbo, the name of death is “Onwudinjo,” meaning “death is evil.” Because of this African frame of mind, decades are spent grieving over a lost one. People’s emotional makeup is often jarred for a long time after the death of a person dearly loved. I am still dealing with the loss of my father.

I have been going through a lot of pain since the death of my father six years ago. It is the greatest emotional trauma that I have ever had in my entire life. The pain is near indescribable. Life for me has not been the same. I struggle with this loss every day. Sometimes I try to let go of this sad memory but I have yet to succeed. It is a very hard blow one me, nay, on all of us – my mother, my siblings, and me.

My father’s death changed me forever. When he died, a part of me died with him. It is an indelible mark that can never be erased from my book of memory. The bottom line is that I love my father – he is my hero, my champion of courage. His words and examples yet remain a vade mecum (a go with me).

Still, a part of me knows, my father is not dead after all. He is in the other room. I can see him with the physical eye. That is the hard reality I have difficulty accepting. Yet he lives. He called me today and told me to trust and obey. He went farther and told me that this is the only way I can be happy in the Lord.

“Mpa” (Father) is dead; you are now fatherless,” my eldest brother spoke to me 17th of October, 1996, the day after my father died. These words have remained evergreen in my memory. I believe I shall see him yet again face to face in heaven, through the grace of God.


Gerald Onyewuchi Onukwugha is currently a student at St. Mary’s Seminary and University (Baltimore). He is an Ibo of Nigeria, a native of Ogwa, a town in the Owerri zone of Imo State. Gerald, or as his friends call him “Gerry,” studied philosophy in Nigeria and earned a bachelor’s degree in Theology from his current school. His philosophy of life is, “You can, if you believe you can.”

After the death of his father Sylvester Ihunwa Onukwugha, Gerry and his family migrated a couple of years ago to the United States. According to Gerry the loss of his father created a vacuum that can never be filled. Yet he has decided to move on to create a legacy of which his father would be proud. He is determined to use his experience so as to benefit and bring comfort to people in their loss.

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update 22 December 2011




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