The Yoruba believe that death is a transition to the afterlife. When the breath has departed from the body there is the usual outburst of exaggerated grief, with loud cries, lamentations, and frenzied gestures, and the eldest son of the deceased, or the brother, if there be no son, at once sends for a herbalist called babalawo, to ascertain if the deceased died from natural causes, or through the machinations of witches.
If the babalawo affirms that the death was caused by witchcraft, further inquiry is made to know if any other member of the family is threatened with a like fate, and also if the soul of the deceased is in danger of further molestation from the evil spirits who have been influenced by the malpractices of the sorcerers.
Should the oracle declare that the soul of the deceased is in danger, sacrifices are made. Thebabalawo then prepares the usual water of purification with shea-butter and edible snails, and dipping into the vessel a palm-branch, sacred to Ifa, sprinkles the corpse, the room, and the spectators with the fluid.
At the same time he invokes the soul of the deceased to leave the house as soon as the funeral rites have been performed, and proceed peacefully to its destination, wishing it a safe journey.
After these preliminaries, the corpse is washed with rum, or a decoction of aromatic herbs, and attired in its best clothes. The thumbs and the great toes are then tied together.
If the deceased be a man the head is shaved, and the hair, carefully wrapped up in a piece of -white cotton, is buried in the earth behind the house.
If a woman, the exposed parts of the body are stained with a decoction of the bark of a tree, which gives a reddish hue to the skin. Finally, the corpse is wrapped up in many native cloths, and placed on a mat at the door of the room.
In the meantime a death-feast has been prepared, and now commences, while outside the house a continual beating of drums is kept up, together with frequent discharges of musketry, fired in honour of the deceased.
The feast, at which intoxicants are used lavishly, soon becomes a veritable orgy, in which, however, the chief mourners, that is, the widows and daughters of the deceased, take no part; for as soon as they have performed the last offices for the dead, and have placed the corpse at the door, they are shut up in an adjacent apartment, where they are compelled by custom to remain during the three days that a corpse invariably lies in state.
While thus immured they are forbidden to wash, and usage requires them to refuse all food, at least for the first twenty-four hours, after which they usually allow themselves to be persuaded to take some nourishment. If the deceased was a Muslim, he or she is buried within 24 hours in line with Islamic tradition.
The conventional mourning is the business of the women of the household, who, while the men are feasting, utter loud lamentations in the room in which they are confined; and, in consequence of this, the epithet isokun, “a mourner,” is often applied to a female child; a male, on the other hand, being sometimes called iwale, “a digger,” i.e., of a grave. A father might thus say that he had begotten two mourners and a digger, meanin, two daughters and a son.
Women usually come to join in the lamentations. There are also professional mourners, chosen for their poetical turn of expression, whose services are engaged in well-to-do households, and who often contrive to work up the real mourners to a condition of frenzied grief. A professional mourner sings in a sad tone, which rises and falls in a modulated wail.
On the afternoon of the third day of the wake the body is placed on some boards, or on a door taken off its hinges, covered with a rich native cloth, and borne at a trot through the streets by the men.
Friends and relations accompany the bier, singing the praises of the deceased, and throwing handfuls of cowries among the spectators. This procession returns to the house towards evening, and the corpse is then interred in a grave that has been dug in the earthen floor, and which is so contrived that the head of the deceased may project beyond the line of the outer wall of the house.
Most of the cloths in which the corpse is wrapped are taken off, and the body, covered with grass mats so that no earth may soil it, is carefully lowered into the grave. A coffin is sometimes used, but not often. Food, rum, and cowries are placed in the grave, the body is sprinkled with the blood of a he-goat, sacrificed to propitiate Elegba, a few more cowries are thrown in, and then the grave is filled up amid the wishes for a safe and pleasant journey to which we have already referred.