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Death, Mourning & the Afterlife

Listen to Audio: 

cc_uganda_bernadette_death.mp3

"Bernadette" talks about funeral services and customs in her neighborhood.

When a Ugandan Catholic dies, local custom dictates that the extended family and neighbors help share the costs of a funeral and burial to relieve the family of the financial burden. Family and neighbors converge on the house of the deceased. People collect food from their houses and bring it to the house of the bereaved family. The body is washed and clothed by relatives at home, and spends at least one night in the home of the family. The church choir might come by to sing, and catechists visit. If possible, the priest might say Mass the next morning before burial, which is generally held from 2-4 pm. In many cases, bodies are brought back to the person's ancestral village for these rituals and burials. 

After burial, a fire is lit in the family yard, and neighbors and friends spend four days and nights with the family1 — including sleeping there overnight— to keep the bereaved company, crying and grieving, and praying for blessings and forgiveness for the deceased. One interviewee suggested that in the traditional understanding, not entirely lost now, the fire helps sweep away the spirit of the deceased. On the last day, they make a celebration to close out the life of the person who has died and there are final formal funeral rites. People remember good things in life of deceased, and discuss what others would remember the deceased for. Visitors and bereaved prepare food and eat together and, if there is no will, choose an heir to replace the role of the deceased in the family and to parcel out responsibilities within the home. After this, the friends disperse, but close relatives stay around for perhaps five more days. A wife who buries a husband includes some of her clothes with the body to signal that they are not separated by death. 

Ancestors are very much a presence in the lives of Ugandans. Many people, including Catholics, believe that ancestors can mediate as sources of blessings or favors, or can intervene in malevolent ways and can be the cause of illness and loss. This is especially possible if a person was not treated well, or if a person was not a good person. Some people put items in the coffin to keep the spirits from coming back. Catholic rites discourage this—some Catholics said that they no longer do this— however after the services, when holy water is sprinkled on the coffin, it is also sprinkled on homes, to reassure believers about the spirits at home. 

  • 1. Formerly it was seven days, but this is said to be impractical today.