The Influence of Christianity on Burial Rites in Nigeria

The Influence of Christianity on Burial Rites in Nigeria
The Influence of Christianity on Burial Rites in Nigeria

The Influence of Christianity on Burial Rites in Nigeria (a case study of Arochukwu in Abia State)




1.1     Background to the Study

All the religions in the world share a belief that there is life after death. Life does not end in the grave. It is believed that when the bodily aspect of man perishes in the physical death, the soul which is the essential part of man survive death; returns to another life beyond. Different religions and cultures give different interpretations to the afterlife. This different interpretations and understanding of the life after death reflects on the different methods of burial rite of each religion and culture. The central thing about burial in every religion is that, every religion seems to see it as a necessity for gaining peaceful rest in the life after death. The Christians believe that the soul returns to God to give account of his life on earth.

The African traditional society is a homogenous and close one with its unique characteristic features that set it apart from other cultures of the world. Some of their beliefs and practices like Caste-system (osu-one dedicated to idol/god), and Slave (ohu) all in Igbol and, killing of twins, and abinos, burying of chiefs /kings with slave, which crafting, polygamy, nude dressing and certain practices against women and widows etc appear to be evil in the contemporary society and therefore, need to be sermonized against so as to review them in the light of superior religion like Christianity (Ibenwa, 2014).

The Influence of Christianity on Burial Rites in Nigeria 

One of the other areas of conflict between the traditional religion and Christianity in Igbo nation is in burial ceremonies. The traditional religious view in Igbo concept of death is that a man is dead when his soul leaves the body for the land of the dead (Eke, 2014). The traditionalist performs some ritualistic ceremonies before burying a dead person.

Christians oppose such ceremonies. In most part of Igbo traditional society, there are rituals concerning the preparation of the corpse for burial. Diviners are consulted to find out the cause of death. In the olden days, the traditionalists buried important personalities, chiefs, and titled men with people who were alive. The aim is to give the deceased company to the land of the spirits. Other material wealth such as gold, money and many other ornaments were buried with dead bodies.


The early missionaries highly frowned at the practice. After sometime, a year or more, the second burial would take place with a lot more elaborate ceremonies than the first. If the second burial was not performed, according to Mr. Enem, Ignatius (oral interview, 2015), the proper inheritance of the late father’s property could not be finally settled (the above practice according to him is still in existence in some Igbo communities such as IAROCHUKWU IN ABIA STATE).

Christians challenged many traditional burial ceremonies. They opposed the traditional second burial rites. And, the traditional religionists believe that this burial rite helps the spirit of the dead person reach the spirit world, join his ancestors, and enable him or her to reincarnate. Also, in some parts of Igbo land, some towns such as Ngor-Okpala in Imo state, Umuahia in Abia State, and many towns in Anambra State, when someone’s wife dies, her corpse must be carried to her father’s people before the first burial or a symbol of such corpse at the second burial ceremony will be carried to the husband’s family. Presently, the ambulance may stop over at the dead wife’s paternal compound and the corpse saluted with many canon guns shots. This is done in most Igbo communities to certify that the dead wife has been brought to her own people. This practice persists till today in most Igbo communities.

Christians are opposed to this kind of ceremony. Presently, according to Rev. Canon Onuorah Nnamdi (oral interview, 2016), in the Niger Diocese of the Anglican Communion, Anambra State, a brief stopover in the dead wife’s paternal home is an offense punishable by the absence of the priests and church members in the funeral service of the deceased. They frown at the practice of carrying the corpse of a dead wife back to her father’s compound or even stopping over as we have seen. Instead, they bury the dead wives in the church cemeteries of their husbands’ town or in their husbands‟ compounds. There are cases of kinsmen and the Christians struggling for the corpses of Christian relations.

In some cases, the relatives of the dead wife would spark off trouble with their in-laws because they are opposed to Christian marriage, stating that Christians deprived them of their traditional rites and customs. According to Mr. Sunday Iweobi (oral interview, 2013), there are cases where the ỊgbaNkwụ ceremony (traditional wedding ceremony) has to be performed before the burial of the deceased wife. This situation arises, especially when the husband did not finish the marriage rites because of his Christian faith or due to negligence of traditional marriage customs or because of other reasons, before the wife died. Sometimes, according to Mr. Iweobi, Sunday (oral interview, 2013), it might be that the deceased was maltreated, and his in-laws would not let go. They would insist on the completion of such traditional marriage rites as a sort of punishment to the husband, which ordinarily they would have overlooked (Okeke et al, 2017).


Again, Mr. Iweobi, Sunday (oral interview, 2013) says that sometimes, the funeral ceremonies of dead relatives that were not done in the past (due to one reason or the other) are organized before that of a relative who died recently. In the same vein, Oreh (2014) identifies the principal dehumanizing widow hood rites and practices to include the following: drinking water used in washing husband’s corpse, crawling over husband’s corpse, long mourning and restriction period, loss of right of inheritance (if she has no male child), sitting on bare floor during the period of mourning, a widow not having bath until eight market days (28 days), and so forth. Christianity frowns at such practices and warns its members never to partake in them.

Expressions of culture are abundant within Africa, with large amounts of cultural diversity being found not only across different countries but also within single countries. Even though African cultures are widely diverse; they are also, when closely studied, seen to have many similarities. For example, the morals they uphold, their love and respect for their culture as well as the strong respect they hold for the gods they believe in and the important i.e Kings and Chiefs (Wikipedia, n.d). Bello (1991) aver that culture is the totality of the way of life evolved by a people in their attempts to meet the challenge of living in their environment, which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms thus distinguishing a people from their neighbors.

Moreover, the biblical account states that God made the provision of a garden for Adam and Eve as their habitat after they had been created. It states, in regards to the divine restriction of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that “for when you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17b); and obviously physical death became a reality of humanity following the account of the fall in Genesis 3. Also, the writer of the book of Hebrews states, when contrasting the principle of Old Testament sacrifice with the salvific efficacy of the propitiatory death of Jesus Christ, that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27a). From the preceding scriptural passages, it is obvious that death is a common human phenomenon, acting as “the implacable enemy of man”, that is, of all human beings. It is the cessation of all vital human functions, certifying the loss and end of human existence.

Death is described as “the natural end of life” and “the inevitable end of man” on earth. Roland Murphy says death “casts a fatal shadow over all human existence” and makes the experience of life to be futile and worthless when it strikes. Burial on the other hand is the act or process of disposing of a corpse. This may vary from culture to culture and from one religious or some ideology to the other. In African tradition generally the dead are not buried away from their land of ancestry. Burial, to be considered proper, honourable, meaningful and acceptable in most African cultures, has to be done in the deceased’s ancestral land. This traditional ideology forces on Christians to strive, against all odds, to also bury their relations, Christians and non Christians alike, in their ancestral land. But tension exists between such traditional insistence on burial of dead persons in their “home land” and the Christian understanding of the concept of the resurrection.


How are Christians who fail to bury their dead according to traditional rite perceived by the people in the culture, and will dead African Christians that are not buried in their ancestral land not resurrect? This article examines the traditional philosophical reasons propelling the African insistence on the observance of burial in the ancestral land even today. It points out the attendant implications of such cultural insistence for the Church, particularly where living Christian relations fail to bury their dead according to required traditional rites. The study aims to investigate the influence of Christianity on burial rites in Nigeria.  

The Influence of Christianity on Burial Rites in Nigeria 

1.2     Statement of the Problem

Under normal circumstances, there cannot be burial rites without death. It is when someone dies that we talk about burial rites. It is death that demands burial and funeral rites. Christianity and African Traditional Religion believe that man has two aspects; the body and the soul or the spirit. The body decays at death while the soul or the spirit survives.

In  Igboland,  it  is  misconstrued  that  the  type  of  burial  rites  determines  the  transition  of the  deceased into  the  next  world, hence,  the trouble  with  the  obnoxious  burial rites. The extent to which this has become a problem is suffered by the deceased relatives especially the  primary  mourner.  There is  need  to  mention  that characteristically, burial rites of the man and  that of the woman take different cultural routes.

For the deceased women unlike men, the burial rites are not grandiose, they are somewhat cool with  moderate socio-cultural practice except  where the  woman  is very old and has been admitted to some traditional societies which are statutory to women at certain  ripe  old  age  (for  example;  octogenarians).  The conflict that has generated from the issue of burial rites in the country especially in Arochukwu in Abia State has left little to be desired as these disagreements have led to crises and in extreme cases, death. Therefore, influence of Christianity on burial rites has actually been undermined especially in a cosmopolitan society like the eastern part of the country which is the target area of this study.

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