Among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, death is traditionally a highly ritualized event filled with deep mourning. The traditional burial rites involve not one, but two funerals whose main intention is to safely escort the deceased from the realm of the living to the spirit world. Only after a successful second funeral can the deceased pass from the time of “ita okazi” -a period of torment – into a state of peace and contentment.
According to “Igbo Funeral Rites Today: Anthropological and Theological Perspectives,” when an elderly man or woman dies, the corpse is immediately stretched out on plantain leaves, sponged down thoroughly and rubbed with camwood dye to mark it as sacred. After the cleaning, the body is laid out in the living room, lying down with the feet facing the entryway – though if the deceased is a woman, she is often seated upright. Women are also carried in a stretcher back to their ancestral village for burial.
Once the body has been prepared for its passage from the world of the living into the spirit world, a wake is held. The eldest son of the bereaved family welcomes the community into the home with kola nuts and palm wine. Prayers and libations are spoken to beckon ancestral spirits into the home to escort the spirit of the deceased. The wake lasts the whole night until gunshots are fired early the next morning to alert the surrounding village of the death that has occurred.
After the wake takes place, the body is immediately buried in the grave. Also enclosed are a large quantity of cloth and some of the deceased’s most valued possessions in life. Men are often buried with their tools, gun or fishing gear, and women with their pots and dishes. The body is then placed in the grave by young men and encased in wooden planks.
The first burial, however, is not the end of Igbo funeral rites. Several months or even a year after the body is buried, a second funeral is held, but this time, it is accompanied by feasting and merry-making rather than mourning. Visitors dress in their best attire, and sing and dance to alert the community of the event that is about to be held. After the second funeral, the deceased is said to have been sent off to take up a new place in the land of the dead.