Oct 12

Respecting the dead

by in Culture & Heritage

How Zulu people remember, respect and commune with the dead

Zulu people believe that their deceased loved ones are their ancestors which are highly respected. When a person dies, it is believed that they are going to their family members who had also died, that they will be together and watch over those who are still alive. Some people believe that ancestors are the middle people between them and God, that they work hand with God. Zulu people respect ancestors and believe that ancestors should be obeyed for things to go well in everyday life, as they are closer to God. Traditional healers help people to know what their ancestors want from, like if there is a certain ritual required and they may come through a dream. The older people can interpret dreams, and are able to say what they mean.

If you dream of a deceased family member or even a friend telling you that they are hungry or cold, than a certain ritual is required, and if it is a friend, you tell their family and they would have to do the ritual. If the deceased come to you in a form of a dream and they are in a good condition, smiling and laughing with you; than it is believed that they came to bring you good luck. If you are having too many dreams of dead family members or dreams that you don’t understand than you may consult a tradition healer and they will be able to tell you what needs to be done.

Zulu people visit gravesites mostly when they are going to have rituals but they do sometimes visit them without a special occasion; like for just cleaning up the gravesite. When the unveiling of the tombstone is going to be done, it is necessary to visit the gravesite. When Zulu people unveil the tombstone, they do the unveiling together with the tradition known as bringing the deceased back home. This tradition is usually done a year or 2 after the deceased has died. When this tradition is going to be done, the family members first go to gravesite and speak to the deceased, tell them what they are about to do and they may also talk about their troubles. The day before the unveiling, the family slaughters a cow, burn incense and speak to the ancestors.

The burning of incense is used to communicate with ancestors, sometimes if one has a headache, they may burn incense or sometimes if one is getting nightmares to chase away evil spirits but it is usually used for ancestors. Sometimes incense may be burnt as a form of remembering the dead and is usually accompanied with Zulu beer. A ritual is not complete without Zulu beer and incense is essential when doing a ritual particularly for ancestors.

An animal is slaughtered at different occasions and for different reasons, only cows, goats and chicken are slaughtered for ancestors. Another cultural tradition is ‘iladi’, which is for remembering the dead. I remember when it was done at; it started when my late mother’s close friend had dreams about her. She said that when she came to her in a form of a dream, she told her that she cannot come home because she wasn’t told to come in. My mother’s friend first told her sister, who is a traditional healer and that’s when we knew that ‘iladi’ had to be done. For ‘iladi’ we first went to her grave, burnt incense to speak to her and the other family members and asked for forgiveness, than slaughtered chicken. We also prepared her favourite food, fruits and Zulu traditional food (including Zulu beer). All of that was done on Friday afternoon and on Saturday, people were called to join us and all the food prepared was only eaten on Saturday. Before burning of incense, we prayed to God, for everything to go well, together with the traditional healer.

Zulu traditions have slightly changed, they may be done a little different from family to family and it may also depend on the community you are from. But there are some aspects of the traditions that do not change.

Ayanda Ngcobo

My name is Ayanda Siphesihle Ngcobo, I am 19 years old but will be turning 20 this November. I grew up in Inanda Newtown A and still residing there. I belong to the Zulu culture; my home language is isiZulu so I am very familiar with traditional Zulu culture. Cultural traditions may shift over time, they don’t completely change but ways of performing rituals slightly change. That makes it a little bit difficult for a young person like me to know all the traditions of the Zulu culture. I may observe when rituals are being performed and usually ask my grandparents about most traditions but they may sometimes disagree on certain traditions.

August 2012

This post is also available in: Zulu

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8 Responses to “Respecting the dead”

  1. From nandipha:

    I gusha yona ayi funwa ngama dlozi?

    Posted on October 9, 2013 at 1:41 pm #
    • From Student Editor:

      Hey Nandipha
      igusha liyahlatshwa nalo kodwa kwimicimbi esemiqoka eyokuxhumana namadlozi, inkukhu, imbuzo nenkomo izilwane zama dlozi.

      Posted on October 11, 2013 at 11:54 am #
  2. From Rowan St John:

    Hello- My name is Rowan and I’m very interested in Ancestry and ritual. I live in Western Massachusetts and I practice Ancestry healing and Family Constellations. Family Constellations come from a man named Bert Hellinger who worked with the Zulu people first as a missionary and he learned about their traditions and created something from what he learned that other people could use to help heal imbalances or troubles with their Ancestry.

    What I’m attempting to do is learn the traditional Zulu songs for calling forth & returning the Ancestors after they are honored in a Healing ritual for the people I work with in groups. I believe that the voice is very strong portal for this and I thought it would be best to try an learn the traditional song from the source. It may not be appropriate for me to even approach you but my intention is pure and I only hope to facilitate healing for all the people I work with and their families. I’m happy to answer any questions about my work. If you think you could help me to learn a traditional chant to use for this type of healing then please do Email me back and we can go from there….

    If it is not something you can help me with I’d completely understand and I still appreciate your writings here and I thank you…

    The work I do is very sacred and centered in the heart of love & compassion and I do my very best to stay out of the way of the process. Some people have benefitted but the work needs to go deeper somehow and all the people I have worked with have positive experiences. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

    Thank you for your time and I wish you all the best.

    Rowan St John

    Posted on December 8, 2013 at 9:43 am #
    • From eNanda.co.za:

      Hi Rowan
      are you panning to come to South Africa to learn those songs? If so, we can get you in touch with some local traditional healers here who can teach you.

      Posted on December 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm #
  3. From Brian Moore:

    Sawubona Mapholoba!

    Thanks for the awesome blog on funerals and ancestors.

    Would it be possible to write a follow-up including the community aspects in the rural and more traditional areas. And also the traditional names and processes.
    Such as,
    1) Who digs the grave.
    2) More on Mphafa – the thorny branch that is used to bring home spirits who die away from home.
    3) A wife/ child/ husbands duties and how they dress after and during the funeral.
    4) The isiphandla and the relevance.

    and anything else which you can add..

    Siyabonga khakhulu!

    My number is 079 643 4457.

    Posted on May 6, 2015 at 6:23 am #
  4. From Penny:

    Afternoon, I would really like to read more on what @Brian Moore has requested but I also have a question can the buffalo thorn tree be used even if a person did not die away from home but the ekulandwa ritual was never performed. The indication is that there are no ancestors in the home so the people need to go to the bush to collect the spirits of their parents and bring them home. Is this correct and how would they go about doing this, would you know?

    Posted on July 21, 2015 at 3:05 pm #
    • From Nicky:

      Hi there Penny,
      I had to bring my mom home, she passed away in the house we live in
      I fetched he with a white 1m fabric, candle, herbs and imphepo. first we cleansed her grave, then we lifted her. best to go with a traditional healer as they know which herbs to use to lift the spirit.
      hope that helps

      Posted on September 1, 2015 at 2:07 pm #
  5. From Hlengiwe:

    Both my late parents passed away in a car accident and they were zulu. Now we is siblings a struggling to understand what ceremonies must be carried through to be able to perform the unveiling of their tombstones. we are confused with seasons of which these ceremonies should be done. Cleansing and “ukukhushulwa” and ultimately the unveiling of tombstones. So fare unveiling I am told needs 1 cow and 1 goat each. and “ukukhushlwa needs 2 cows and 1 goat.
    Please advise me as I am in desperate need of help.

    Posted on September 19, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

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