Funeral Ceremonies of the Ibo
By Karen Hauser (1992)
The Ijaw and Ibo perform intricate burials and funeral ceremonies. The most elaborate performances are for the chiefs, and there are several types of death that are considered shameful and are not given any burial at all.
In the Kalabari, when a chief dies, his family takes his body to a special funeral compound (“Oto Kwbu”) to be washed. This involves a painstaking ceremony in which special pot of water and cloths are brought in, both of which are forbidden to touch the ground. Then the chiefs sisters tie an Okuru around his waist and his legal wives dress him with special cloths.
Next the sons and brothers carry the corpse to a bed in a room containing the shrines of his ancestors (“Wari Kubu”). Friends and family of the chief show respect by wailing and playing drums to signal to the ancestors that he will soon join them. Then the legal wives sit around the body, in order of rank, each holding a broken knife blade. The legal daughters and sisters sit, in age order, in two columns on either side of him. Other cheifs come bearing gifts and the funeral party stays the night, singing and wailing. Next the first widow and her children give a funeral play (“Kala Ekkpe Siaba”) in which they sing and beat drums, in praise of the chief.
During this play each wife is confined to a small room. She must paint her face and body with black dye and camwood in her seclusion. Each wife is given three meals a day, and relatives visit each wife to whom the wife sings a short song which she has made up in praise of the chief. Mourning dress is also worn for ten months. Widows and close female relatives must wear Okuru cloth and then white baft, distant female relatives must wear white, and men wear blue baft. Both women and men shave their heads, but the widows are not allowed to cut or cover their heads for ten months.
This mourning is followed by a pilgrimage to Aro Chuko, where the chief is to be buried. Fine clothes, ornaments, beads, plates, knives, tobacco, and gin are buried with him while a native pot is placed above the ground. There is no food buried because that is offered every eight days (on the “Fene Bene”). The women are forbidden to weep, so that they allow the spirit to leave this life peacefully. If a woman does cry, she must sacrifice a goat or fowl at the feet of the corpse, in order to purify the stain of her tears. Once again cannons are fired to announce to the ghost world that the chief is arriving.
Ten months after the burial, another ceremony begins (“Kopinai”). This is a great feast with a variety of foods and drink. A member of each tribe must wear European dress and speak only English. This is to show that the chief, by this time, is “so great as even to dine with white men in the ghost world.”
As soon as the family can afford it (often months or years later), they give a play for the chief (“Peri”) and then a parade of war canoes. For the parade, a member of the Poika family makes a carved image of the chief which the cheif’s family receives in secrecy. After the image is with the family for four days and the water parade has returned, the family stages a battle which they, of course, win and show the image as part of their victory. The image is then placed in a shrine (“Arua”) containing images of the ancestors (“Nduen Fobara”) and another feast is given for the mock return of the image. At each of these ceremonies, the family and friends offer gifts to market people and sacrifices to the place at which sinners were slain.
Whereas few Ibo do not believe in sacrifice, for many, the chiefs’ funeral ceremonies are very bloody. First of all, the cheif’s family wash the body directly in the death chamber, not in a special wash room, as do the Kalabari. Next they place the body on a high bush table (“ojo”) and cover it with cloths, strings, manilla, and young palm leaves, symbolizing rebirth.
The oldest daughter then leads a procession of family and friends around the compound, singing and dancing. Her husband, the cheif’s son-in-law, then lays a feather of an eagle, slain by a blood relative of the chief, on top of the corpse, to be buried.
Following this ritual, come the sacrifices, which must be killed by the cheif’s children. First a dog is chosen because of its power of clairvoyance and ability to forsee danger and evil. A dog is beheaded and the children draw a circle around the corpse with the dripping blood. A cat is chosen because of its spectacular night vision in order to bring the chief good eyesight in the underworld. An eagle is chosen to bring the chief good eyesight in the light. Finally a parrot is chosen because of its clear voice so that the chief will always be heard in his next life.
The next set of sacrifices are slain by the relatives on the chief’s mother’s side of the family. A goat is selected because of its sturdy feet, to carry the chief wherever he would like to go. After the animals, the slave wives are sacrificed. First one special slave wife (the “Aho’m”) is slain and thrown into the grave and the rest must have their arms and legs broken and are buried alive with the body. Only the bravest and strongest men are selected to perform the courageous task of breaking the bones. Depending on the chief, there may be more human sacrifices. Some families have bodies hanging from posts or trees around the burial square. If the chief is rich enough, several more slaves are slain at the place where the chief bathed, ate, slept, received guests, and as a gift to the trees.
Next, like the Ijaw, the Ibo signal the ancestors of the arrival of the chief by playing drums and trumpets. They then close the grave, but leave a small space for the last sacrifice. The strong men capture a man from another tribe, behead him, and place his head in the small opening.
The death chamber (“Obiri”) is decorated with the skulls of the victims and the family has a great feast of the flesh of the animal and human sacrifices.
For the next three months, the widows must sleep in the Obiri in order to guard the ojo. After this period, the Obiri is torn down and all of the materials and cloths are burned. The widows are allowed to return home but they must wear mourning clothes for a year.
For people other than chiefs, funerals differ depending on the person and cause of death. For the Ijaw, when an old, free woman dies, she is buried with a dance and feast, similar to that of a chief. However, no head dresses are allowed at a burial of a woman. These are special only to men. When a younger, free woman dies, her family may give a funeral play in her honor, but this is expensive and therefore limited to the wealthy. Because she was not a slave, she is buried at her family’s house, not her husband’s. When a man dies, cannons are shot to signal his death on the eve of the death, the following morning, after the burial, at the families return to the house, the following afternoon, and then twice a day for the next six days. If a person dies a “bad death”, the body is secretly thrown away with no burial at all.
If an Ibo woman dies, she is buried at the home of the son. If she has no son, her body is thrown into a bush. Children were given a burial within their parents’ houses. Like the Ijaw, the Ibo also have “bad deaths” including those of women who die in confinement, children who die before they have teeth, suicides, and those who die in the sacred month. The Ibo also believe that certain people must be put to death lest they shame the entire group. Like the Ijaw, these bodies are thrown away in secrecy.