© Archives of the Missionaries of Africa, Zambia, Lusaka.

Extract from the work of Edouard Labrecque entitled “Bemba Customs”, dated c.1931

Translated by Fr. M. Gruffat



Edouard Labrecque : Bemba Customs










q        In the African mentality, death is never due to natural causes, except perhaps in the case of people who lost their lives in accidents. Even in the case of accidents, there is strong suspicion that there is foul play somewhere, and that witchdoctors have been setting them up somehow for reasons of their own, that sorcery was at work.

q        When a person falls ill, the entourage looks for remedies, usually made up of tree roots or bark. Some elderly men are well versed in the knowledge of the curative powers of plants. Most important among them are the ‘shinghanga’ or doctor-diviners, for not only are they experts in the knowledge of remedies, but they are above all able to discover the supra-natural causes of illnesses, which is far more important for our Africans, who are superstitious.

q        For our Africans always use a magical charm (‘cishimba’) besides the natural remedy on the ground that the natural remedy is efficient only through the magical charm. In their minds this charm has a double purpose: to activate the natural curative power of the remedy and to thwart the supra-natural cause of the illness. But for the charm to be suitable and really efficacious, the supra-natural cause of the illness must be investigated and brought to light, and the only way to do it is to consult the spirits. The longer-drawn the illness, the more official the consultation of the spirits must be. At first one member of the family would preside over the invocation of the spirits and make the charm. As the condition of the patient is growing worse, the family must call in the expert, the ‘shinghanga’, the doctor-diviner, and the official interpreter of the messages from the nether world . We shall see further how the doctor-diviners go about their work.

q        In the course of the illness, all the members of the family, all the relatives, will come and pay a visit to the patient. They are certainly moved by true concern for the sick person and by a feeling of affection, but they also know that their absence from the patient’s bedside would arouse suspicion: they would be suspected of having cast an evil spell on the patient, and feeling guilty they now want to keep away from their victim. It is not surprising to see our people going away on long and harassing journeys for the sake of visiting a relative of theirs reported to be ill.

q        In this essay we shall not speak of hygiene and sanitation in the Bemba society nor of the rudimentary knowledge they have of medical care to deal with illness.






1)      The African notion of death:

It is absolutely indispensable to know how the Africans view death if we are to understand their customs concerning death. For them death is the separation of soul and body, more exactly the disembodiment of the soul. The human does not die, but moves out of the present visible world  to join other souls in an invisible and mysterious hereafter to share in their condition. The life they lead in this nether world  is very similar to the one they left when they gave up the ghost. This other world  is a carbon copy of the earth we live on. But the souls of the dead have wider powers on the forces of nature, especially the souls of great chiefs and the souls of the ‘bashimpundu’ or fathers of twins. Most important: all the souls in the other world  have the redoubtable power to harm the inhabitants of this earthly world  by afflicting them with sickness and death. This is a brutal fact the Africans take for granted without the shadow of a doubt. Do they base their certitude on any explanation or reason? None at all!


2)      Good Souls and Bad Souls:

q        The souls of the dead are divided in two groups: the ‘mipashi’ or good souls and the ‘fiwa’ or bad souls. The good souls are ever ready to play good tricks on you if you give them due respect and honour. The bad souls are evil-minded because they left this world with a grudge or because they have been neglected by their families and relatives ever since they gave up the ghost and they have not been given the worship they have a right to expect from those they left behind. The ‘ciwa’ – the man who left this world with bitter resentment in his heart - has only one thought in mind: to cause as much harm as he can, and to wreak his revenge upon those he has a grudge against, that is to say the members of his clan. It is along the line of the old Latin proverb: “Inimici hominis, domestici ejus = a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.” This belief is so deeply encrusted in the minds and hearts of the Africans that all cases of suicide are in fact acts of revenge. In other words a man can become so embittered by the injustices of which he is the victim that he may well commit suicide so that his soul will reach the upper world as a ‘ciwa’ intent upon wreaking his revenge upon his persecutors.

q        The disembodied souls are, therefore, very powerful, and this power they dispose of is the more feared since the people on earth haven’t got a clue about the ways those ‘fiwa’ and ‘mipashi’ make use of it. They are completely in the dark because they are dealing with the invisible world of the spirits, and they have no idea how to tackle it Hence the idea of winning over the sympathy and understanding of the souls of the departed by following faithfully the old traditions of the tribe as regards worship of the spirits, which are handed down from one generation to the next. They are very careful not to leave out one iota of the rites they have to perform in honour of the dead for fear of dreadful reprisals upon themselves and their own people.

q        The disembodied souls cannot come back to torment the living if nothing is left of the bodies they inhabited in the past prior to their death. One essential condition for those souls to be active again among the living is reincarnation. That is the reason why the bodies of persons whose souls are suspected of being ‘fiwa’ (evil ones) are doomed to be wiped off the face of the earth to prevent their eventual reincarnation. Let us say, for example, that many people died in a short time in one particular village. The name of one dead person is eventually mentioned as being the ‘ciwa’ behind this hecatomb. A ‘shinghanga’ is summoned to the village and instructed to thwart all further attempts of this ‘ciwa’ to cause more deaths by removing all means for this ‘ciwa’ to be active on earth. In other words the doctor-diviner must find ways of getting rid of its corpse. One commonly used magical drug is the ‘kabosha’, from the verb ‘kubosha = to make rot’ (‘kubola’ = to rot). If necessary, the ‘shinghanga’ orders the corpse to be disinterred and burnt at the stake. There must not be any chance left to the ‘ciwa’ to re-enter its former body and play havoc among the living. This is usually the policy followed after the death of several children.

q        The disembodied souls have no special abode of their own in the nether world. The people believe that they stay in the neighbourhood of the tombs where their bodies were buried, that they have the freedom of the bush, especially at night. The Africans say that, after nightfall, the souls of the dead fall into animated conversations in the graveyard, and that it would be quite possible for the living to overhear what they say if only the living dared to go there!


3)      For the Africans there is no such thing as remuneration after death:

Our people do not seem to know what is the corner stone of morality, of ethics: that God has given Man commandments to follow, and that Man has the (doubtful) privilege of transgressing them. As a logical consequence, our people do not believe in the existence of a divine judgement after death and of sanctions penalising the sinners. Those ideas (God’s commandments, transgression, sin, judgement, reward and punishment after death) are totally alien to the mentality of our Africans. Fear of death is reduced to the mere basic instinct of self-preservation and survival, with no apprehension for anything else. They accept their fate as mortals without difficulty. Death is only a painful, but transient moment to live through, an unpleasant medecine difficult to swallow. It is the fate of all human beings, as shown by the oft-quoted proverb: “Takuya mabwe, bantu e bayako = there is no going-away for the stones, the human beings they are the goners.” The inevitability of death has no lasting influence on life here on earth.


4)      Death is mysterious and terrifying for the Africans:

q        Although they do not live in fear of retribution for sin at the hand of God after death, the Africans find Death something very mysterious and terrifying. Where does Death come from? Why does Death strike down one particular person at one particular moment, and not another one? Why does Death mow down so many people at one particular period in time? Our Africans find their answers to those questions in the extra-sensorial world. They find the demise of old men and women quite natural, and they call it “mfwa-Lesa = death caused by God”. All the other deaths are, in their minds, the results of one of two possible causes: either evil spells cast by evil-intentioned persons who are still alive here on earth, or acts of revenge of dead persons who have a grudge against the living (the ‘fiwa’).

q        Hence the ritual followed after the burial of a person to find out the cause of death.

q        Hence also the various rituals of purification after death and burial. For death is a polluting factor that can affect the living. The individuals and the whole village must be purified by multiple rites of purification. The idea is for the surviving people (all the villagers as well as the relatives) to cover their tracks so that Death won’t be able to reach them and strike them down also as She did the person that has just been lowered into the grave. Whatever Death may have ‘touched’ at the occasion of the demise of the person that has just been buried is polluted, persons as well as instruments: everything and everybody bear the smell of Death, which must be washed away to throw Death off the track of more victims. The livings that have been thus in contact with Death can transmit this ‘smell’, this pollution, and they must be purified so that they may not lead Death to more victims beside themselves. The idea is for the surviving people to ward off all danger of further contamination and of leading Death to more potential victims.

q         This is more particularly true of married couples. If the person who died was married – as is very often the case, of course, - the surviving couple is considered as most severely polluted because of the former intimacy in which they lived as husband and wife, and therefore must be the object of special rites of purification. As the Africans are firm believers in clans and totems, they are convinced they have to bring back into the clan any parcel of the dead person’s disembodied soul that might still be clinging to the surviving couple - who is from a different clan – as a result of the intimacy of conjugal relations; this is to be achieved through the ‘kupyana or bupyani’, the rite of succession. (Explanation: the surviving couple – let us say the wife - must have one sexual intercourse with a male member of her dead husband’s clan to transfer any lingering parcel of his disembodied soul back from her clan, where it does not belong, into his clan, where it does belong. Clans cannot be alienated.)


5)      Part played by the ‘banungwe’ in the ceremonies of the funerals:

q        In the ceremonies of purification following on the death of a villager, the ‘munungwe’ of the dead person is called to play an important role. It is essential to understand the significance of this word ‘munungwe’ if we are to understand anything in the part this personage is expected to play at this occasion. It is a known fact that totems are very important in the social life of the Africans: the members of the same totem form a clan. But those totems maintain a strange relationship among one another, called ‘bunungwe’ in Cibemba. This ‘bunungwe’ can be a negative relationship of opposition in certain matters, and a positive relationship of close intimacy in others; the question is to know which aspect is predominant. Every member of a clan is ‘munungwe’ to the members of another clan through their mutual ‘bunungwe’. Let us take an example to clarify the notion of ‘bunungwe’: the ‘bunungwe’ between the Clan of the Lion or ‘Bana-Nkalamo’ and the Clan of the Animals or ‘Bena-Nama’. The lion is an animal that feeds on other animals. As both the Lion and the Animal are totems of two different clans, what is the ‘bunungwe’ or basic relationship between the two clans? Negative or positive? Opposition or intimacy? I am inclined to favour the second alternative: the positive relationship of intimacy is predominant. The ‘banungwe’ of both clans are, therefore, friendly to one another and live in relationship of close intimacy. Why this preference of mine (Fr Labrecque is speaking)? The animals that are the totems of the two clans eat one another, or rather lions feed on the other game. You do not eat what you do not like, and nothing is more intimate to your own self than the food you eat, which is transformed into your own molecules. The ‘banungwe’ of the ‘Bena-Nkalamo’ and of the ‘Bena-Nama’ are bound to be fond of one another and to live together in close relationship, because the animals that represent their totems eat one another, and there is nothing that becomes more intimately bound together than the food and the body it is fed to through chewing and digestion. The whole question of the ‘bunungwe’ must be viewed against the background of figurative language  (against the principle of similarity, as explained in the Introduction of the present essay).

q        The characteristic fact that reveals this intimacy between the ‘banungwe’ of different totems is what takes place traditionally at the apparition of the new moon (‘kubangulo mweshi’) between people belonging to positively related totems: they find enormous pleasure in cursing and abusing one another copiously without taking the least offence. A very striking fact indeed, when we think of the touchiness of the average African. It is not only at the time of the new moon that the ‘munungwe’ of one clan allows himself shocking freedom of language towards members of another clan having positive relationship with his clan: this is also done at other important events in the life of the people, such as betrothal, marriage, etc.

q         The ‘banungwe’ clans – the clans that have a positive relationship through their related totems – live in such close intimacy that the members of one clan will never take umbrage of anything unbecoming that the members of the other clan allow themselves to do or to say, even knowingly.

q        The Africans are convinced that this close intimate relationship between two ‘banungwe’ clans continues even beyond death. That is the reason why the persons entrusted with the task of purifying all those that came into close contact with Death at the occasion of a burial are the ‘banungwe’, i.e. members of the clan that maintains positive relationships with the clan in mourning. The disembodied souls will not be frightened into hiding never to come back again if those proposed to carry out the rites of purification are people they are familiar with and fond of. The ‘banungwe’ could allow themselves all kinds of daring liberties of language towards them in their lifetime and got away scot-free; they continue to enjoy the same privilege after their death, and they can therefore proceed with the rites of purification with all impunity.

q         The role of the ‘banungwe’ totems in social relations among the BaBemba stops there, on the level of purely platonic intimacy, mutual understanding and forbearance in a limited number of life events, it does not entail mutual support in other circumstances.






1)      On the threshold of death: the patient’s last moments:

Let us take the case of a man whose illness has taken a turn for the worse. Let us say that his case is now desperate and that he is at the point of death. Every conceivable remedy has been tried out, all in vain. Death is just round the corner. The people in the entourage go into the bush just outside the village and hasten to put up a shelter made of branches (‘kusalikisha nsakwe’), for the man must not give up the ghost inside the village. Death inside a village has very serious consequences: the village is polluted by death and all the talismans are desecrated, and the villagers have to go through a whole series of embarrassing, time-consuming and very annoying rites of purification before they can resume their normal life.

The patient is now in the temporary shelter built for him on the outskirts of the village, where he has been carried. Soon he has no strength left (‘amaka yaya’), he is now at death’s door, at his last gasp, as clearly shown by his reactions (‘alepumbuka pa kufwa’, ‘alesamba pa kufwa’). He twists his fingers nervously, and the people say: “Alependa minwe = he counts his fingers”. If the moribund is a woman, they are very unkind indeed, they say: “Alependa baume abo abifiishe nabo = she counts the men she slept with!” All the close relatives are standing around in silence. If the moribund is a man, two or three men lay their hands on his arms and legs. If the moribund is a woman, it is women that hold her arms and legs. The dying person’s head is held up, (very often by somebody squatting behind). Children and young girls are not allowed to be present, lest they be contaminated by the proximity and the arrival of Death. The same interdiction applies to pregnant women, except to the pregnant wife of  a dying man, for husbands and wives have lived in such intimacy that the spouse of one at death’s door is already contaminated.


2)      The last gasp – wailing (‘misoa’) – washing of the corpse:

q        At the very moment the dying person gives his/her last gasp, the whole assistance, more specially the women, bursts out in an explosion of lamentations and wails, what is called in Cibemba ‘misoa’. The men show their grief more discreetly. Among the BaBemba this public show of mourning consists mainly in wordless wailing, albeit remarkable by its volume and pitch. In other tribes one woman among the mourners is appointed to moan a complaint in an even, monotonous voice, and at the end of every sentence the assistance repeats the last word in minor chord in three parts.

q        At the moment of death, great care is taken to keep the hands of the dying person closed in a tight fist. If one finger were allowed to point, it would be an unmistakable sign that the now disembodied soul has turned evil, has become a ‘ciwa’. The pointed finger would, no doubt, be intended to designate the person responsible for this particular death, and nobody in the assistance is prepared to take the risk.

q        Once the people are certain that the person has passed away, they close his/her mouth tight (‘kukupisha kanwa’) and also his/her eyes. Then they set about making everything ready for the burial (‘kuonga’): the corpse is straightened out, the arms are folded in such a way that the closed fists are resting under the chin, the legs are first bent at the knees in such a way that the heels rest against the thighs and then forced back in such a way that the knees touch the belly. That is what the people call ‘kufuuka = to fold the body in two’. All those parts of the human body are tied into the proper position with bark ropes. When it is ready, the corpse is wrapped in a piece of cloth like in a shroud, and then rolled in a mat or in a hide. The corpse is ready for burial, wailing continues stronger than ever.

q        If the dead person is an old man, his body is taken back into his hut inside the village for the wake. If the diseased person is a common man or woman, the wake takes place in the bush, where death occurred. Cibemba has a special expression for carrying dead people around: ‘kusenda kanyelele’, in other words to carry the corpse after the manner of the small ants (‘tunyelele’), for those fascinating insects carry only dead matter. This special expression is not without importance because of the various rites of purification that are to follow on a person’s death and burial.


3)      The ultimate ritual hunt (‘kusowe banda lya cisubo’):

q        If a person’s death occurred inside the village, it is because the family was taken completely by surprise, because death overtook the patient much faster and much earlier than expected; or it may also be because the defunct was enjoying special privileges, as a chief or a prominent citizen would. Whichever the case, the village is now polluted by Death, or as Cibemba puts it, ‘mushi wabundwa = the village has been flooded’. It is necessary for the whole village to be ritually purified of this ritual pollution.

q        The first the villagers do is to put out the fire in all their houses, and to throw away the ashes and the charcoal deep into the bush in a westerly direction. The women will cook the meals on the outskirts of the village on a fire that has been lit anew by rubbing pieces of wood, and this procedure will be kept up till after the burial. The brewing of beer is now interrupted, for Death has taken possession of it, as Cibemba has it: ‘bwalwa bwalikilwa ne mfwa’. It is good manners to keep it as it is (at the time of the interruption of the fermentation), and to drink it as it is in honour of the dead person.

q        There is a general taboo thrown on the whole village for reason of ritual contamination caused by the presence of Death. Men and women must abstain from sexual relations, and many gestures so natural in normal life are now under an interdict. It is, for example, strictly forbidden to pull a straw from the roof of the hut to clean one’s teeth.

q        While the women are deep in mourning, wailing and lamenting the whole time, the persons of the ‘munungwe clan’ (see above) try to comfort them in their own peculiar way, saying in substance: “This relative of yours has always been a good-for-nothing that could not be trusted. He is deceiving you once more; he is not dead, on your life. The dirty hypocrite has simply fallen asleep. He’ll soon stand up again and have a good laugh at you! Tafwile, aleele fye!” The mourners hardly listen to them and continue to show their grief the more loudly since the ‘banungwe’ are playing down the sadness of the occasion.

q        The burial is carried out no less than 24 hours after death, barring exceptional circumstances and imperious reasons. In the meantime the first ritual hunt is set afoot, which is called in Cibemba ‘kusowe banda lya cisubo = to make the ritual hunt of the unction’. The aim of this hunting party is to make preliminary enquiries on the possible cause of death in this particular case, the results of which will be temporary and communicated only to the members of the clan. On their way back from the hunt, the participants will simply say: “Caba fye cifubawilo = truth is kept hidden in the depths of our hearts!” If the defunct was married, his wife is to sit outside her hut throughout the duration of the ritual hunt (‘kwikalile banda’) and talk to nobody. Before setting out for this ritual hunt, the participants go the place where the dead person is lying in state. They have brought beads with them. An old man spits on those pearls and mumbles a blessing that sounds roughly as follows: “Listen to us, you our dead relative, we are setting about the task of finding out who has killed you. If Death has been sent from such-or-such hut, we shall know at this sign: that the animals we are going to kill are males. If Death comes from such-or-such other hut, we shall know at this sign: that the animals we kill are females.” All they have to do now is to make their way into the bush and carry out the ritual hunt the usual way, with one difference, however: the beads will not be offered to the spirits, but to the souls of the departed, and there will be no offering of flour. The animals that are killed are brought to the village and served as relish to all those that have come to the funerals. The participants in the hunt will not breathe a word of the results, only the parents are kept informed of the suspicions that the hunt has aroused against so-and-so, or such-and-such.


4)      Immediate preparations for burial:

q        The burial takes place the following day in the morning. The dead person’s children are shut up in a house, for they must not see their father’s or their mother’s body being carried out of the hut and away to the grave. The corpse has been hung on to a pole between 2.00 and 2.50 metres long, which is carried by two men of the family (‘kupinga’). Another relative carries the hoe and the axe that are to be used to dig the grave. Very important: both tools (the hoe and the axe) must be carried by the same man on the same shoulder. This is done only for a burial, for in all other occasions to carry those two instruments on the same shoulder would be regarded as a curse along the following line: “I am on my way to dig a grave for somebody!

q        Before the removal of the mat or hide containing the corpse, one person of the ‘munungwe’ clan throws a handful of flour on it (‘kupupila ubunga’). If the dead man was a great farmer (‘mulimi’), the roof of his hut is sprinkled with seeds as a tribute to his farming skill.

q        If a person was erroneously declared dead, a member of the ‘munungwe’ clan is to sprinkle millet seeds – seeds, not flour – on his or her body before he or she is welcomed back into the world of the livings. The symbol is obvious: the millet seeds are to undo the work done by the millet flour. This ritual is called in Cibemba ‘kukubulula ubunga’, the reverse of ‘kukuba ubunga’, in plain English the sign “welcome back among us” wipes off the unpleasant effect of the sign “farewell, old boy or old girl”. Only after this rite has been performed will everybody be able to show unmitigated joy at the return among the livings of the man or the woman who had already been written off as dead.


5)      The funeral cortčge leaves the village: burial ceremonies:

q        Just as the bundled corpse leaves the hut, a sacrifice is offered in honour of the dead person’s spirit. If the defunct was a commoner, a hen is killed. If the defunct was a distinguished person, the attendants cut the throat of a goat. The body of the sacrificed animal (hen or goat) is dropped on the threshold of the hut to force the carriers of the corpse to step over it. This is the signal that the children, the young girls, and more particularly the parents of twins can now safely go out of the village and watch the funeral procession from afar, but not to follow it to the cemetery.

q        When an old man or a prominent citizen is being buried, he is taken for a last stroll around the village to give him a last chance to greet his friends – at least that is what the people say.

q        All the people attending the funeral fall in and follow the carriers of the corpse to the burial ground, usually the men in front and the women behind, but there is no strict order of precedence. The graveyards are, as a rule, far away from the villages, in a well-shaded stretch of bush, a ‘mushitu’ (a thickly wooded grove that is the source of a river or a brook). The chiefs and the members of the royal family have their own cemeteries. The three big Bemba Chiefs (Citimukulu, Mwamba and Nkula) and the members of their families are all buried in the big grove at the source of the Mwalule River or in the ‘mishitu’ of several rivers called Milenge. You can come across tombs in populated places, for example along paths, but they are graves in which strangers were buried, or even local people (‘bakaya’) who had to be buried in a hurry, on the spot.

q        When the funeral cortčge is in sight of the burial ground, the carriers come to a standstill and lower the corpse. The men go to prepare the grave. Just as they are on the point of entering the cemetery, the man who fulfils the function of ‘shimapepo’- of prayer leader in the cult rendered to the souls of the dead - takes a handful of flour and throws it to each of the four cardinal points alternately, saying: “Mutwiswileko = Open to us – mwe batangile kuno = you who preceded (us) in this place – mwamona munensu naaisa = you see, our companion has come (in his turn) – twisanga apabiipile = let us not choose a bad spot – twisanga libwe lya kutulesha kwimba = let us not come across rocky ground that would prevent us from digging (the grave).” Then the “shimapepo’ – who is a member of the dead person’s family - looks for a suitable place, preferably near the tomb of the parents who gave birth to this dead person, that they may resume their family life and work together again for cutting firewood in the nether world that is now their abode. The BaBemba dig vertical graves, two metres deep. They often cut out a cavity on one side to fit in the corpse and drive vertical poles into the ground along the wall to prevent the soil from covering the body when the grave is filled in again.

q        When the tomb is ready, the gravediggers go and fetch the corpse and lay it down on the fresh soil they have piled up on both sides (‘pa mufukwa loba’). They are not permitted to put it anywhere else. Then the two men who folded the corpse into a bundle in the funeral house (see above) and carried it by means of a pole the whole way to the cemetery jump inside the hole, receive the dead man and lay it carefully down (or fit it inside the cavity on the side, as the case may be). They make sure that the pole on which the corpse was hung to carry it to the cemetery is placed across the opening of the grave above their heads, and that the head of the dead person is turned towards the East, towards the rising sun, the symbol of hope, towards the place the ancestors originally came from.

q         Before they heave themselves out of the grave, the two men cut a hole through the mat and the shroud level with one ear, so that the dead person may be able to hear the invocation of the spirits and not be deaf to the supplications of the livings. The dead person’s bracelets and bangles are broken up and will be disposed on the tomb as a votive offering to force the dead person to remain permanently around. The parents throw shells (‘mpande’) and beads all over the corpse: it is a last homage to their dead relative, and it is at the same time a way of providing him or her with means of “bartering for fire in God’s land”, in other words of buying his or her admittance into the sojourn of the dead (remember the importance of fire and the fireplace in a Bemba home). The Natives are convinced that, without those few shells and beads, the dead person would be at a loss where to go and would wander aimlessly around forever. Then the two men tear off a strip of the shroud to take back to the village: the child who is to take the place of the dead person in the home will wrap it around his waist for the ceremony of the temporary succession and for the rite of the ‘kunwa menshi = the ritual drinking of water’, as we shall see further.

q        The next ceremony is very important, the ‘kutembesha ntembo = the preliminary understanding’, the invocation to the dead person with a view to finding out the cause of death by means of the ritual hunt. The ‘shimapepo’ – the relative who has been appointed to perform the invocations and incantations for this particular occasion - seizes the basket of flour that was brought along, takes a handful of it and throws it on the corpse down in the grave, and accompanies this gesture with the ritual words: “Tulefwaya icikuliile = We want what has eaten you.(killed you) – Icikuliile ciwa = The demon who ate you – nga cafuma kuli bawiso na banoko = if it comes from your father and mother’s side (of the family) – balume ba nama = we shall kill male game. – Nga cafuma ku mukashi = If it comes from the wife’s family, - bakota ba nama = we shall kill female game.” This challenge to fate, this way of casting lots, refers to the results of the ritual hunt they will organise once more in the following days. The disembodied soul is now dwelling in the world of the spirits and is in a position to know what caused it to pass from this world to the next. This soul has now the mysterious power to influence the behaviour of the animals in the bush and to force them to act according to the challenge expressed in the invocation of the ‘shimapepo’ in order to reveal to the parents the answer to the question that is gnawing at the back of their minds: “Who killed our son or daughter?” By so doing the disembodied soul will give the family a chance to take their revenge. There is only one alternative in this challenge: either somebody in the family of the parents is responsible or somebody in the family of the wife. The field of investigation is purposely limited to keep the rest of the assistance out of it. The parents have already some idea of what to expect: what with the results of the first ritual hunt on the very day the person died (‘kusowe banda lya cisubo’), the nature of the illness that carried the patient off into the nether world, the random gossiping among the members of the clan, and a few other pointers, they have a pretty shrewd idea of who is suspected of the foul deed, of casting a fatal spell on their child. The next ritual hunt (‘kusowe banda’) will certainly remove all doubts as to the identity of the killer by way of magic.

q        It is only after this incantation mumbled by the locally appointed ‘shimapepo’ that the grave will be filled in. All those present step forward to the tomb to share in the work of covering the corpse. They do not do it with their hands, for it would be a bad omen (‘cintu cafina’). They kneel down on top of the mount of fresh soil and push forward as much soil as they can with their elbows and make it fall on top of the corpse. The gravediggers will complete the job with their hoes.

q        In certain tribes, among the Lunda and the Mambwe, for example, the people are not satisfied with simply tearing a hole in the mat and the shroud level with one ear, they will fix a reed joining the ear directly with the outside world. The meaning is the same, with or without reed: the dead person must keep contact with the world of the livings.

q        The soil pushed back into the grave to fill it is packed with the pole that was used to take the corpse down to the cemetery for burial. Whatever piece of wood and rope was used for fixing the corpse is thrown away in the bush, never to be touched again, for those gadgets have been polluted by Death.

q        Once the barrow on top of the tomb has been properly arranged, the gravediggers will place a ‘lifwasa’ or small anthill at the emplacement of the head, and all around it they will dispose the broken pieces of the bracelets and bangles. The family has brought a vase, a washbasin and other utensils to scatter on top of the barrow, but the containers are all leaking, for everything put at the disposal of the disembodied soul in the other world  must be pieces of wreckage, just as the disembodied soul itself is the broken remnant of a human being. If the dead person was a keen hunter, the family will put a piece of hunting net on the barrow of his grave. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see on graves rusty bicycle frames, broken easy chairs, bottles, pieces of soap, or suitcases. It is even very common for the families to place on grave barrows tobacco pouches and whatever is required by those that were pipe smokers and tobacco snuffers to prepare tobacco.

q        Everything has been done to satisfaction, the women let out a few more piercing wails, and the whole company goes back home. The men who lowered the corpse into the tomb stay behind for a last rite to ensure their own safety. The two men who jumped into the tomb to receive the corpse take the hoe and the axe and stand at each end of the grave. They hold the tools over the barrow for a short time. Then the one that was carrying them from the hut to the cemetery in the funeral cortčge put both of them back on his left shoulder, and they at last make their way to the village. This rite of holding the hoe and the axe over the tomb is supposed to frighten away hyenas and other animals that might be tempted to come and exhume the corpse for a meal. If the grave were desecrated, nobody would ever dare to collect the remains and bury them again. You are not to bury the same person twice, are you? An elderly man, more daring than the others, may pile up lumps of soil on the scattered bones to cover them, but he will have to go through rites of purification, for he has come into contact with Death and has been polluted. What the people often do is to cover the barrow of the grave with thorns, and this is a much more efficacious way of discouraging hyenas from messing it up than all magical rites. Still our Africans will perform the magical rites first, and only then will they heap bundles of thorns on the grave, on the general principle of ‘first things first’.





1)      General purification after the burial:

q        The simple act of walking on the soil dug out of the grave, or simply of having joined the funeral cortčge to the cemetery were enough for anybody to be polluted by Death. They must, therefore, all make their way to the river to have a ritual bath by standing in the current and washing themselves thoroughly. The gravediggers, the marriage partner, and all those that took a more active part in the burial ceremony dive under the water, for they are more polluted than those that simply stood around and watch.

q        Nobody will ever think of shirking this preliminary rite of purification lest he or she be accused of witchcraft. The Africans maintain that the persons that caused the death of fellowmen or women by evil spells are very careful to cover their tracks. They will attend the funerals and display all the outward signs of consternation and grief. But at the moment they stand on the fresh soil just dug out of the tomb (‘pa mufukwa loba’), they have only one thought in mind: to save some of the soil that has stuck to their feet or in between their toes. For they plan to mix it with special charms and keep it in a horn to thwart all attempts of their victims to wreak vengeance upon them. Even the ritual hunt would not reveal their identity. Anybody that would shirk the purification rite in the river immediately after the burial would automatically be suspected of witchcraft and of ritual murder.


2) Purification of the persons and things that came into direct contact with Death through the dead person:

q        When the funeral cortege left the house for the graveyard, two persons stayed behind to prepare all that is required for the rites of purification. One of them is a woman belonging to the ‘munungwe clan’ of the dead person (see earlier in this essay about ‘banungwe clans’). This woman sweeps the funeral house, adds a fresh coat of mud cover on the floor, especially around the fireplace. This sweeping and plastering of the house form the first rite of purification. The sweeping is called ‘kukusa cito’ and the plastering ‘kushingula longwe’. For this work the woman will receive a hoe and an axe.

q        Her companion is to be an old man, well versed in the tribal customs and the tribal pharmacy. He will first produce new fire by rubbing sticks together and give it to the woman. Then he makes his way into the bush in search of all the ingredients he needs to make the proper remedies. Those ingredients are mostly roots, such as roots from the tree rightly called ‘musamba-mfwa = death washer’, from the ‘mulunguti’, and from a few others. He pounds those roots and plants together and stores them in a broken pot, which he places on a new fire at a crossroads along the path followed by the funeral cortčge.

q        On their way back from the cemetery, the members of the clan will not fail to pass this way before they reach the village and receive from the old man a pinch of the charm he has prepared, with which they rub their hands and feet. Those who were in physical contact with the patient’s body before he or she gave up the ghost must use a warm portion of the concoction of pounded roots and plants, since the body was still warm. Those who handled it after death (‘kwikata kanyelele’) can obtain the same result of purification with a pinch of cold remedy.

q        All the others that are not members of the clan go through the same rite of purification. Moreover, before they reach their own houses, they will all have to file past the funeral hut and have a look inside (‘kulengula mu nghanda’ = to examine the house), as a sign that they leave behind the last remnants of death (‘emo basha mfwa  = that is where they got rid of death’). Then a handful of grass is pulled from the roof and set on fire, and those around expose their hands and feet quickly to the flames. Most important, the hoe and the axe that have been used for the burial must come into close contact with the purifying fire. Fire will burn away the last remnants of Death, there won’t be any fear any more of Death lurking around the corner.

The members of the dead person’s family are more deeply contaminated than anybody else. There are more rites of purification for them to come, when they are all together. For this purpose a mixture of water and magical remedies is poured in a fragment of broken pot. A new fire is lit with two sticks. According to tradition, at the moment the pot is placed on the fire and removed from the fire, all those present for this rite of purification should hold it or at least touch it if the rite is to be efficacious. But as they are usually too many, a bark rope (‘lushishi’) is tied around the pot, and it is enough for them to touch this rope in order to be purified (as if by an electric current). The two men who played an important part in the rituals of the burial (preparing the corpse, carrying it to the cemetery, digging the grave, laying the corpse inside the grave, etc) are those that take the pot and place it on the fire. They first warn the people that they are going to perform the rite: “Lekeni congo = stop all noise – twalatekapo = we are putting (the pot on the fire)”. All those present grab the bark rope. Then the two men say: “Twateka = that’s it, we have placed it!” They all let go of the rope. The same manoeuvre is repeated when the time has come to remove the pot from the fire. When this is done, they all take some remedy and rub it on their bodies. Next all the instruments that were used for the burial are also rubbed with it: hoes, axe, bows, arrows, etc. Death must not be allowed to linger on anybody and anything. The children who had been shut in at the time of the burial are now freed and also come to be purified.


3)      Purification of the village : kusangulo mushi:

q        If death occurred inside the village instead of outside, the consequences are serious, for the village is now entirely polluted, all the charms and remedies kept around the houses have lost all their magical power, and the talismans that were specially prepared by the ‘shinghanga’ or doctor-diviner for the safety of the village (‘cishimpa’, as we explained in the chapter concerning the foundation of a new village) are desecrated. The whole village stands in need of a special rite of purification, which must be performed by the brother or the sister of the dead person. All the people have to leave the village, except those that have handled or touched the patient or the corpse.

q        The person designated to perform the rites of purification must, first of all, have sexual intercourse with his or her marriage partner followed by the usual ritual purification after the marital act. Then this official performer of the rites takes the remedies given for the occasion by the ‘shinghnga’ or doctor-diviner (who attends the proceedings), puts them in a pot, and places the pot on the fire. All those that stayed behind in the village for this ceremony and who are standing around the house must be able to touch the pot when it is placed on the fire and taken off. As they are standing outside, a bark rope is tied around the pot and run through a hole cut out of the wall, so that, at the given signal, they can grab and hang on to this rope while the performer first transfers the pot onto to the fire and then removes it from the fire. When the remedy has been warmed up, they all rub some of it on their bodies, and the rest is used by the ‘shinghanga’ to make fresh ‘mufuba’ by mixing it with ‘mwangwe’ flour. He will also put one groundnut seed, which he will squeeze tightly, it is the ‘lubalala lwa mupwilapo = the groundnut of perfection’. This ‘mufuba’ will be the property of the doctor-diviner (‘shinghanga’); it is the remedy used in all purification rites, and those who want to use it will have to pay dearly for it. It will also be used as ‘cishimba = basic ingredient’ for the making of all magical remedies, for use in all the major ceremonies involving rituals of purification and the use of charms, for the rites accompanying the women’s monthly menstruation, etc.

q        To end up this ceremony of purification of the village, a hen is killed by knocking it against the door lintel and then bled. The blood is sprinkled on the ‘coni’ or magical gourd of the village, on the walls of the ‘lufuba’ or votive hut of the village, and on the sacred pit of the village near the ‘lufuba’; the gourd, the hut and the pit being the three talismans bequeathed by the doctor-diviner on a new village built according to tradition (see the ceremonies for the foundation of a new village). This sprinkling has returned to those village talismans the full magical power they had lost through the desecration of the village caused by the death of a villager within the village. The whole incident is now over.

q         The parents of the dead person will still remain in quarantine for a few days to give the corpse time to grow really cold.


4) A few other ceremonies following death and burial (given in a N.B.)

q        The Africans have itching feet, they spend much time on journeys, and as a consequence no wonder that some die during a journey. If a man dies on the road, his companion, usually from the same village, who has attended him at the moment of death, will have to go through purification rites when he is back home. This man will be washed all over the body with water put in, and poured out of the ‘coni’ or village magic gourd. The souvenir the companion has taken from the dead traveller’s person, and which he has brought back to the family, must be hung on a tree outside the village until a member of the bereaved family has performed the rite of ‘kunwa menshi = drinking water’, which we are about to explain. This rite is performed whatever the manner the person, man or woman, died.

q        The aim of this ceremony is to hand over the dead person’s possessions (bows and arrows if it is a man, belt if it is a woman) to a temporary successor. This temporary successor, boy or girl, will take the name and the functions of the defunct till the succession has been properly secured through the ‘bupyani’, which will come later.

q        Tradition has it that the bow and arrows of the dead man should be carefully hung (‘kusamika amata’), for the defunct would certainly be angry and  take his revenge if they were left lying around carelessly. In the same way the dead woman’s belt must be carefully put away. If the dead man has no parents to take charge of his bow and arrows, and the dead woman no relative to store away her belt, the latter must be hung on a tree outside the village until somebody has been appointed to take care of them and look after them until the ‘kupyana’, the rite of succession, has been properly performed.

q        For this ceremony a child is chosen among the relatives of the dead person. The child must be of the same sex (a boy for a man, a girl for a woman), but it must NOT be one of the children born of the defunct. The day that follows the burial, this child is brought to the house and made to sit on a stool. A new fire is lit with sticks, a pot of water is placed on the fire to warm. When the water is hot, flour is dropped into it with some ‘mufuba charm’, the purifying agent par excellence. The child will go through the act of eating and drinking something out of the pot and will get hold of the one groundnut seed called ‘mupwilapo’ (see above) and cut it in two with the teeth. Then the child is rubbed all over the body with some 'mufuba’. Finally the strip torn off the shroud in which the corpse was wrapped is wound around the child’s waist. Then the child is made to sit again on the stool and everybody is reminded that they have to respect this child as they had the defunct. Henceforward this child is considered as the keeper of the bow and arrows (boy for a man), or of the belt (girl for a woman).

q        This ceremony of the ‘kunwa menshi’ is very important in the traditional customs, but everybody knows that what it confers is only temporary. When the rite of ‘kupyana’ is officially performed right in front of everybody, the child will hand back the bow and arrows, or the belt, to the one who succeeds the defunct. The child has the privilege to retain the dead person’s name, never the functions, which are taken over by the true successor.





1)      Reasons for this ritual hunt, called ‘kusowe banda’:

q        A few days after the funerals, the family proceeds with the ritual hunt, called in Cibemba ‘kusowe banda = to hunt the devil’ or ‘kufumye banda = to drive out the devil’. The aim of this ritual hunt is to find out who is responsible for the death of the person who has just been buried. According to the words of the incantation the “shimapepo’ mumbled when he sprinkled the corpse with flour just before filling the grave on the day of the burial in the cemetery, the disembodied soul has been challenged to use its weird power in this hunt for truth. It is this disembodied soul, which knows the truth, that has the task of driving the proper game into the net: male game if the guilty person belongs to the family of the father and mother of the dead person; female game if the guilty person belongs to the husband’s family or the wife’s family (depending on whichever is dead or still alive).

q        When the defunct was still alive, but already in the grip of a serious illness, the members of his family had already suspicions on the cause of the trouble. Let us say, for example, that one day a man started a conversation in which he made, if not hostile, at least unfriendly remarks on the person who is now seriously ill, the family would at once draw the conclusion that he may well be the one that has cast an evil spell on the patient. Trivial matters can be at the origin of the suspicions. One man, for example, was heard, one day, to praise a stranger in his absence, and this stranger is now dead: there will be people to interpret his words of praise as a curse in disguise on the ground that the dead person was a stranger to him, and therefore he had no reason whatsoever to say anything good about him except if he was planning to do away with him and he wanted to hide his game behind a screen of good will and understanding. It is the real meaning of the Bemba verb ‘kwamba’, which we translate in English by ‘to speak ill of somebody, to run somebody down’. In the minds of our Africans, anything we say about a neighbour, even if it sounds good, may well be intended as a slight. It is easy to understand that the Africans must always watch their tongues very carefully.

q        Long before their relative fell seriously ill, long before he or she died, the family members had already met in council to look around for people who could have said things, pleasant or unpleasant, about their now dead relative, which could be twisted around and interpreted as a veiled curse; or simply people who were not in good terms with their dead relative and could be suspected of foul play. In this case, their relative’s death can be explained in two different ways: either it was caused by the veiled or open hostility of the person(s) they discussed in their family meetings, or it was the result of the resentment of a demon or ‘ciwa’ in the husband’s clan or in the wife’s clan. The words of incantation mumbled by the ‘shimapepo’ over the corpse just before the grave is filled in would be inspired by this alternative: if the hunters kill male game, for example, death is the result of witchcraft; if they kill female game, death is due to a family demon.

q        If the hunt reveals that a demon is to blame for the trouble, there remains to find out which clan this evil soul belongs to, to the husband’s or to the wife’s, whichever is now dead or still alive. A second ritual hunt will be set up to solve this second riddle. It may take quite some time to find the real culprit, and quite a few more ritual hunts, for that matter.

q        If the hunt brings out that death was caused by witchcraft, the person under suspicion is now regarded as guilty. There is nothing the suspect can do to break free from the accusation. The wrongdoing leading to the suspicion of witchcraft may have been real or fictitious, serious or trivial, it is no longer of any importance. To be proved guilty of witchcraft by a ritual hunt is very serious. The person is now under public glare. If he or she refuses to admit his or her guilt and to take the consequences, he or she will be condemned to trial by poison (‘kunwa mwafi’). It is a radical, if unfair way of solving a case. If the suspect fails to vomit the poison and dies of it, the verdict is guilty, and the suspect has already met with the punishment. If the suspect manages to eliminate the poison from his system and survives, the verdict is not guilty, and the accusers are now under accusation in their turn.

q        If the hunt shows that death was the result of the resentment of a ‘ciwa’, a family demon, there remains now to find out which clan this demon belongs to, to the husband’s or to the wife’s, whichever is alive or dead. The clan that is found guilty will have to pay compensation to the clan that has been injured in order to ward off the danger of a family vendetta.

Let us see the way people go about a ritual hunt.


2)      The people go out for a ritual hunt:

On the day chosen for the ritual hunt all the male population of the village gather together and go into the bush. If the dead person whose death they investigate was a man, the master of the hunt is his father; if the dead person was a woman, the master of the hunt is her husband. In Cibemba we say ‘mwine se banda’ or ‘cibinda’. They take some flour in a basket and a few beads, and make their way to the place where the hunting nets are hung. It is often the ‘nsaka’ or public meeting place used by the Government’s tax collectors (‘musonko’). The nets are collected, and the crowd moves deep into the bush. When they reach the place where the hunt is scheduled to take place, they proceed with the offerings to the spirits and the blessing of the nets.


3)      Offerings to the spirits and blessing of the nets:

q       The ‘mwine we banda’, the master of the hunt who fulfils at the same time the function of ‘kapaala’ or worship leader, takes wood shavings (‘ntemwe sembe) he chopped with his axe off a ‘mufungo tree’ or a ‘mupundu tree’. On those shavings he sprinkles some flour and some beads threaded on a blade of grass; it is the ‘lupao’, the offering of the hunters to the spirits haunting the bush in order to be spared accidents in the course of the hunt. While he is spreading the flour and the beads on the shavings, he says: “Kampinda-conce-ce sanga = You Kampinda spirit of this section of the bush – tulangilile pa ntanshi = show us the way ahead – no mukashi obe NaMukonda = and your wife NaMukonda – mutukunkwile mu shamfumu n mu mipashi yonse = the two of you guide us among the spirits of the chiefs and of all the commoners.” Children are appointed to take those offerings to the spirits, because children are innocent and more agreeable to the spirits. The worship leader, the ‘kapaala’, send them off with the following ritual words: “Mu mpanga mubuute tuutu = Let the bush be favourable (lit. In the bush let there be a clear view)– ifintu fiise bwangu ku musumbu = let the game rush to our net - ifipando fibi filambalale panshi = let the fierce wild animals stay where they are lying!”

q       One of the children takes the offering entrusted to him to a place on the way back to the village and lays it down at the foot of an anthill. Another makes his way to the shelter where the hunting nets were hanging and deposits his offering there. The third moves forward into the section of the bush where the hunt is going to be staged and puts down his offering at the foot of a large tree or a big anthill, saying: “ Mwe mipashi ya pano, muletwafwako! = You forest sprites lurking in the background, you are going to help us!” Let us not forget that, in the mentality of the BaBemba, large trees and huge anthills are the abodes of spirits.

q       It is now time to bless the nets. The worship leader, the ‘kapaala’, officiates in this rite. He takes a branch from a ‘kasengele lubuta tree’, which he will use as a sprinkler (‘musapu’), a branch from a ‘musungati tree’ and a branch from a ‘kalalila tree’. Holding the three branches and his axe in one hand, he strikes the net with them, saying: “Sumbu nyama!” All present answer: “Mutima umo = one heart!” Then the worship leader repeats the incantation that was mumbled over the corpse in the cementery before the grave was filled in: “Mfwa nga yafuma ku mwaume, balume ba nama = if death comes from the side of the husband’s family, let male game be caught in the netmfwa nga yafuma ku mwanakashi, bakota ba nama = If death comes from the side of the wife’s family, let female game be caught!” This said, he lays down the branches he was wielding for the blessing of the net in such a way that they are pointing to the section of the bush where the hunt is to be staged. The carriers of the nets must now step over the branches; if they don’t, the hunt is doomed to be a failure. Moreover those branches will force the game milling around to run in the direction of the nets. The hunters are now ready for action, they scatter all over the bush with cries of: “Cilundile ca kwa Kampinda na ca NaMukonda = It is up to Kampinda and NaMukonda!”


4)  The hunt is now in full swing:

q        The nets are stretched out in a suitable place, and the children run away in every direction to drive the panicking game back to the nets where the men are hiding. When the animals hit the net, the men spring forward and run them through with their spears.

q        If a ‘cisongo’ or bushbuck runs smack into the net, it is an almost unmistakable sign that death was caused by witchcraft, for a witchdoctor is using bushbuck horns to store away his magic concoctions. In this case the matter must be brought back to the ‘shinghanga’ or doctor-diviner, for he is the real expert in ferreting out the evildoers and render them harmless.

q         If a ‘katili’ or steinbuck gets entangled in the net and is killed, the conclusion is the same as for the bushbuck (death was caused by witchcraft) for the same reason (witchdoctors use steinbuck horns to store away their magical concoctions). But the capture of a ‘katili’ may have a totally different meaning: some would draw the conclusion that the discovery of the truth as to who is responsible for death in the present case is going to take a very long time to sort out. In other words “katitaneni = argue away to your heart’s content!” The reason given for this interpretation is the quality of a steinbuck hide: it is so tough that it is very difficult to soften enough for proper tanning (‘mpaapa ya katili tainakila bwangu = a steinbuck’s hide does not soften quickly’). Here again the principle of similarity is at work: on both sides (tanning the hide and discovering the truth) it is a long protracted job.

q        A monkey or a ‘kabundi’ (small squirrel) caught in a ritual hunt is bad omen, for it is a warning that another member of the same family is going to die soon (‘caba ni ntanukila, cikaselela kuli umbi, nao akafwa’). The hunters choose to ignore this warning and hasten to check on the sex of the animal, for that will only strengthen Fate’s decision.

q        If a bird is caught, such as a guinea-fowl, it is an indication that death came from far away in the case under investigation, for birds can easily travel long distances (‘caba mpupukila’). Again the principle of similarity is applied: the family must look far and wide for the cause of the death.

q        All those cases are comparatively infrequent. The usual game caught in a ritual hunt are ‘mpombo’ or duikers, for they are teeming all over the bush. The results are open to close scrutiny and interpretation.

-         If only one animal is killed in the course of the hunt, the people give it the name of ‘katobesha’. The hunt is declared inconclusive, for no final interpretation can be based on the sex of one single catch. Fate has not designated the culprit. Another ritual hunt will have to be organised in the hope that the men will be given a chance to bag at least two animals of the same sex in order to be on the safe side.

-         If the first two animals that are caught and killed are males, the guilt on the side of the husband’s family is definitely established, even if a larger number of female animals are bagged later in the proceedings. Those female animals are called ‘nkonka cuupo = marriage pursuers’. The Natives believe that they were killed because they instinctively shared the fate of the first two males as a reminder of the intimacy that existed between the husband and the wife before one of the couple died through witchcraft. They do not add anything to the person’s guilt, proved beyond doubt by the killing of the two males, they make it simply irrefutable.

-         But the situation can become tricky when males and females are caught and killed at random, in a confused order. The hunters fall to arguing with one another endlessly (‘fikansa fyeka fyeka’) as regards the interpretation they ought to give to the results of the ritual hunt. They are forced to set up one hunt after another before they can come to an agreement and declare which side is guilty, the husband’s or the wife’s, and even then there won’t be unanimity, and they can only take a lame decision.

-         If a second hunt had to be organised, the skulls of the animals caught in the nets and killed are to be split open on the return of the hunters. If this were not done, it would be useless to have another go, for the antelopes still roaming around the bush would by then be warned by their relatives that have just been slain near the nets of the fate that may be in store for them if they don’t hide away. Why? The explanations the Africans give of this phenomenon are lame and not very clear. It has something to do with the spirits of the antelopes, we presume. Anyhow the antelopes, living and dead, won’t be able to communicate if the skulls of the dead ones at least are split wide open, for the skull is the seat of the intelligence or the instinct.


4)      The ritual hunt is brought to an end:

q        If the identity of the person responsible for the death under investigation is revealed without the possibility of any reasonable doubt (i.e. reasonable within the frame of the Bemba mentality and belief) by the sex of the animals killed in the hunt, their heads (‘makolo’) will be chopped off and deposited at the door of the culprit, who will have to eat them together with the members of his or her clan. Moreover the culprit and the members of his or her clan will have to pay the compensation claimed by the victimised clan, whatever it may be.

q        If the culprit refuses the verdict of the ritual hunt, he or she will have to go through an ordeal of one sort or another to give Fate another chance to solve the problem. As the ordeal by poison is reserved to the witchdoctor, the ordeal that is usually prescribed is the ordeal by hot water. It is infrequent for a person convicted of witchcraft through the ritual hunt to refuse the verdict. This person will admit his or her guilt, possibly with the restriction that he or she was unaware of the harm caused by his or her words or deeds to a third party at a given occasion. The culprit will also declare that he or she is ready to take the consequences.

q        In the case of a man who lost his wife, if the ritual hunt identifies the culprit as a member of the dead wife’s clan, the latter will have to provide the widower with a woman or a girl so that he can perform the ‘kupyana’ rite (to have sexual intercourse with her once so as to get rid of any remnants of his wife’s death that could still be clinging to him). The same clan will have to provide him with a new –permanent – wife to replace the deceased one if he asks for one.

q        If the verdict is not unreservedly accepted, if the compensation is not paid, if the culprit and his or her clan try to shirk their obligations, there will be vendetta between the families, and a vicious circle of reprisals will set in.

q        The meat of the animals killed in the ritual hunt is divided among the participants according to certain traditional rules and practice - except for the heads that go to the clan of the person convicted of witchcraft - even though this meat is considered as special –‘inama ya mw’ibanda. All the hunters get their share of it.





1)      ‘Bwalwa bwe shinda’ = Beer party for (wiping off) the spoor (of Death)

A beer party is scheduled to take place a few seeks later. The beer is specially brewed to wipe off all traces of Death, to make it impossible for Death to find its way back to the family: ‘bwalwa bwe shinda = the beer for the spoor’ or ‘bwalwa bwa kushimaule shinda = beer for wiping off the spoor’. This beer party is also organised to thank all those who took an active part in the burial. This beer is brewed without any special rite. On the eve of the party, a small calabash of this beer is taken into the bush and left somewhere on the path followed by the funeral cortčge on the day of the burial. This calabash will be left there the whole night, to make sure that the defunct has a good chance to come across it and taste it. In the morning the calabash is brought back to the village and mixed with the bulk of the beer in the pot, so that all those present at the beer party may enter into communion with the defunct who is supposed to have drunk the first gulp. If the cemetery is not too far away, somebody will go and pour some beer on the tomb. All those who joined the funeral cortčge have a right to sit on this party.


2)      ‘Bwalwa bwa lupupo’: Mourning beer party:

q        There is no fixed period for this beer party to be held in honour of the dead person, but it is not too far in time from the day of the burial. When the woman who is brewing this beer puts the first portion of sprouted malt in warm water (‘kushimpulo bwalwa’), she will say the following blessing (‘kupaala’): “Ngo’li mupashi musuma = If you are a good soul, bwalwa buno bukalowe = let this beer be strong – bakakucindike bwino = let them honour you well!”

q        In the second phase of beer brewing (‘kupota bwalwa’), the woman rakes together the second portion of malt (‘fipote’) that had been spread on the floor to cool in the funeral house, at the exact place where the corpse of the man or woman whose memory the family is planning to honour was laid out in state and where it was growing cold of the cold of death, and she mixes it with boiling water. The idea was for this second portion of malt to share intimately the conditions of the corpse before being mixed with boiling water.

q        When the brewing process is completed without the performance of any other special rite, the paternal ant (of the deceased person), or an elderly member of the clan, says a blessing or an invocation to the dead person’s disembodied soul: “We mupashi, ngo’li musuma = You the spirit of our relative, if you are a good disembodied soul, - utwiminine = may you protect us – pakuti abantu basansamuke bwino = in order that the people may live in true happiness – belacita lubuli = that they may not indulge into quarrelling!”

q         Then a small calabash of this beer is taken to the graveyard and poured on the tomb as a libation or into the hollow reed that has been driven through the barrow. This is the essential rite of the ‘lupupo’.

q        Sometimes a small votive hut is built near the village to receive all kinds of offerings from the people, more particularly the beer offering of the ‘lupupo’.

q         Once this is done, the people are invited to come and sit down at the beer party in honour of the dead person. No need to press them hard, they all come. There is some wailing, but there is a lot of singing, including lewd songs in plenty, and a lot of dancing in honour of the dead person. That is the very purpose of the ‘lupopo beer party’: to honour the disembodied soul of this dead person and court its favours, sympathy, understanding and support. If this party were not held reasonably early after the burial, the soul of the recently departed villager would soon be back to harass everybody around by appearing in their dreams. If this warning fell short of teaching them good manners, untoward happenings would quickly call them back to order and punish them for their carelessness.

q        Here is a specimen of the songs the revellers like to bawl at this occasion. First comes the version in old Bemba, then the version in modern Bemba, and the general meaning in English:


Nshishimune mushimu, nindaba = Twimye uwafwa twilaba = Let us remember the dead person let us not forget him or her.


Kashitu kalala, mayo, kalalwama ngala. = Akashitu uko mayo alala, kalawama imisambo ya miti = The copse where my mother is lying, how graceful the crown formed by the branches of the trees!


Wanseka kashamo. Wakula na nyna nani? = Wanseka ico nshamine, nani akula pamo na banyina? = You laugh at me because of my hard luck, but who can boast of being of the same age as his mother?


(Tabakula pamo na banoko, bonse balafwila  = they don’t grow as old as your mother, they are all dead)


Nobe ukayako, nshila ya muyaya = Nani nobe ukayako mu nshila ya muyaya = Who do you think you are? You will also go away along the road to where nobody comes back


Kansungwala = Ne waba akashishi akanono = I who am just an insignificant insect


Kanjikumbate ne mulanda, kushala neka namona malwa, namona nshiku = Kanjikumbate ne mulanda, nashala neka, namona ubulanda, namona nshiku (sha mbito) = Let me sit down like a poor man, I remain alone, I have only misery, I know only days of unhappiness


Mwana wa mufwi, waikala mu lukolo nkumbu shaba = Mwana wa mufwi (uwafwa) aikala pa lukolo, nkumbu (bulanda) shaba = The child of the arrow or the orphan (the one that died) is sitting on the veranda, he sits with Lady Misfortune


Letako akase, tukashule nyina uko alala = Letako ulukasu, tukashule nyina uko alala = Bring a hoe here, let us unearth his mother where she is resting


Fwe misusu ya nkoko, twakulubana = Fwe twana twa nkoko, twalalubana (twalabelelela mu kashala fweka) = We the chickens, we are lost (we are forever in our solitude).


This text in old and modern Cibemba is a clear indication that our Africans can express drama in striking poetical language. This old tradition of the mourning beer sounds very strikingly like an invocation to the disembodied souls of the dead, like a rite in the cult of the spirits. This is an aspect that must not be overlooked when we want to situate this custom of the BaBemba against the new Christian background.


3)      Bwalwa bwa cinshinshisnhishinshi : the quiet beer party:

This beer party is scheduled to take place soon after the mourning beer of the ‘lupopo’. The dead person’s family gathers together to discuss the question of the ‘kupyana’ and to come to an understanding as to who is going to take the place of the deceased person and take over his or her attributions and obligations. Beer is brewed specially for the occasion, but only the members of the family will sit around the pot without making noise (hence the name cinshinshinshinshinshi, a sort of onomatopoeia suggesting that the murmur of the conversation is no louder than a whispering wind).


4)      ‘Bwalwa bwa cansula mabula’: Beer that marks the disappearance of the temporary shelters:

Ř      We must bear in mind that our Africans are never in a hurry to settle disputes. They like to discuss all problems at length and to look at the problem from all possible angles. Time is not a factor of importance for them (you take the time that is needed to do everything you have to, you do not hurry things along). This is the reason beer is always brewed for these occasions. In this particular circumstance, the whole question of ‘bupyani’ or succession is reviewed.

Ř      The name of the beer refers to the occasions when the villagers had to leave their village and spend sometime outside the village under temporary shelters, called ‘nsakwe’. This happened whenever a death occurred inside the village, either because a commoner surprised everybody by giving up the ghost earlier than expected, or because a chief or any other important personage died, and died inside the village because he enjoyed this privilege. Whatever the quality of the person that died inside the village, the result was the same: the village was polluted, and the whole population had to move out and live in temporary shelters in that outskirts for the purification rites to be performed. At other times the number of people who came to a wake was so large that many of them could not find accommodations within the village and built ‘nsakwe’ outside.

Ř      The presence of those shelters was a constant reminder to the family that the question of the ‘bupyani’ had to be quickly settled so that they could be dismantled (‘kwansula mabula’). Once the successor had been appointed, all that reminded the family of the painful subject of the mourning was removed.


N.B. Good manners in the way a person’s death is announced and in the visits of condolences to the bereaved family:

Ř      The Chief must be notified of the demise of any villager of some social standing in the agglomeration. The messenger must bring a hen, for it is not good manners to come empty-handed to break such news to a person in authority. Sometimes the Christians also bring a hen to the priests when they announce the death of another Christian. This custom is called ‘kubikula mfwa’. The Chief never takes the hen himself, for he would be contaminated by a gift that is related to death. The bird is handed over to his entourage, who do not have to share the same scruples as the Chief on this matter of ritual pollution and who are only too glad for the opportunity on that day to have the best relish on the local menu.

Ř      The parents of the dead person would go to any extreme to be present on the day of the burial. Their absence would be noticed at once and adversely interpreted: they would be suspected at once of being the cause of their child’s death through witchcraft. Those who were really delayed or prevented from coming have to pay a visit of condolences as soon as possible to wail for the dead person’s departure into the other world .It must be the first of their top priorities. In fact our Africans are very keen on fulfilling this social duty, called ‘ukulosha’ or ‘to wail’ in Cibemba. Distance is no problem; they are prepared to face the greatest hardships and to postpone the most urgent work as long as they can come ‘kulosha’. They just can’t help it, THEY MUST GO ‘KULOSHA’.

Ř      When the mourners reach the village, they must follow strict rules of procedure. The visitors go straight to the person in morning, who is usually seated in front of the house. They stand in his or her presence in silence, and bend down and touch the ground with the tip of their fingers. Note that the all the fingertips must rest lightly on the ground at the same time. Then they cross their arms on their chest with their hands resting flat on their shoulders and lean their heads slightly on the side. That is the traditional attitude of condolence in the presence of those in mourning. They remain in this position for some time in silence. Then they step into the house where wailing and lamenting begin anew. If the cemetery is not far away the visitors are taken then for them to make the traditional offering of pearls, shells, etc (always very modest).

Ř       This rigid attitude of mourners - who have come to fulfil the duty of ‘kulosha’ - at the moment of formally greeting the bereaved family has given rise to an idiomatic expression, which is in fact regarded as a curse: ‘Tauikata iminwe panshi; ngo’mona ifyo yalingana = you do not touch the ground with your fingertips; if you did, you would see that your fingers are equal!” In other words: “It is obvious you do not know what it means to be bereaved. Beware! Your turn will come sooner than you expect!”










Preliminary Remarks:

q        We could compare the Bemba custom of the ‘kupyana’ to the Jewish custom of the levirate. There is a certain similitude between the two customs, but it is very superficial. According to Bemba customs the core of the tribal society is the CLAN. Marriage does not alter a person’s appurtenance to his or her original clan. Marriage is simply a convenience bringing together a man and a woman in a house or family for the purpose of procreating, but marriage does not create a distinct social cell. The husband still belongs to his clan and the wife to her clan. When they die, the clans claim their respective rights

(a)    over the disembodied soul of the defunct or ‘mupashi’

(b)   over the functions & honours the defunct enjoyed in life

(c)    over the possessions the defunct left behind and over the children.


(a)    The disembodied soul or mupashi’ still belongs to the clan. This makes life very awkward for the surviving partner in marriage. The partner retains remnants of death, ‘ali ne mfwa’. The partner is contaminated and under many taboos. The partner is closely watched, and every word and deed is likely to be badly interpreted. If the partner happens to touch a child in a moment of irritation or edginess, the child’s body will eventually swell (‘akalalwa amafwa’), which is the first step on the way to death. This is unavoidable, for the partner was polluted at the contact of Death and is still carrying vestiges of death within the belly. But there is something much more serious. Because of the intimacy of conjugal relations between husband and wife, a parcel of the deceased couple must have of necessity clung to the surviving partner. If the disembodied soul of the dead couple wants to come back on earth, it has something concrete to adhere to in the former partner who is still alive. The clan of the disembodied soul is dead scared of this eventuality because the disembodied soul belongs exclusively to its clan, not to the living partner and certainly not to the living partner’s clan. This parcel of the ‘mupashi’ belonging to one clan, which is still clinging to the living partner belonging to another clan, must be recovered. The only way to achieve this result, the Natives say, is one sexual intercourse between the living partner and a member of the other clan to which the ‘mupashi’ belongs: this one sexual intercourse will wipe away anything left behind by the dead partner in the living partner. This is the deep reason behind the ‘kupyana custom’. It is a far cry from the levirate, for there is no question in the ‘kupyana’ of giving a posterity to a childless member of the family.


(b)   The social functions and the social rank a person occupied in life must be kept within the clan. This is of no real importance for most people, the majority of whom are commoners, ‘muntu cikulu muntu’. But it is important if the deceased person was holding a high position, for this position and rank must stay in the clan (‘teti cilube’). The transfer of this function or dignity is done when the bow for a man, the belt for a woman, is handed over to the successor.


(c)    The possessions are still reduced to very few goods in the present Bemba society, and it is not worth speaking much about it. The possession of the children is another question altogether. In Bemba society the children belong to the mother’s clan, but the father – and the father’s clan – have certain rights that cannot be overlooked. It is most of the time a question of mutual understanding.


q        Let us go back now to the first point in this essay on the ‘bupyani’ (substantive for ‘kupyana’): the dead partner’s clan insists that the living partner must be cleaned of whatever remnants of the dead partner’s personality still clings to him or her and does not belong to his or her clan. The surviving partner can be a man or a woman. The member of the dead partner’s clan to be selected for the ‘bupyani’ must be a woman if the surviving partner is a man, or a man if the surviving partner is a woman. The person selected for the performance may be married or un married (‘mushimbe’). This gives four different possibilities, which we must study in great detail.


The Four Possibilities of ‘bupyani’:


1)      The surviving partner is the husband, who is now a widower:

The general idea is that a close relative of the dead wife, preferably a sister of hers, ought to come and sleep with the surviving husband once to free him from those vestiges of death. The Bemba expression is very strong: “ukulya mfwa = to eat death”. That is the only way that the disembodied soul of the dead wife can be totally recovered by her clan, and that the widower can be freed of all taboos. As the female relative appointed by the leaders of both clans can be married as well as unmarried, the ceremonies of the ‘kupyana’ will be different.




q        This woman will come to the widower and have only one sexual intercourse with him. This is considered a perfectly adequate way of wiping off all parcels of his dead wife’s personality that may still be cleaning to him. By this one sexual act, the widower has rejected death (‘kuposa mfwa’) into the clan of his dead wife. After this sexual intercourse, they go through the normal rite of purification: they both hold the dead wife’s ‘kanweno’ or ablution vase to put it on the fire and to remove it. Then they wash their fingers. This done, they take some white millet flour (‘mwangwe’),  mix it with the rest of the ablution water in the ‘kanweno’, and drop some ‘mufuba’ charm in it (the charm prepared by the doctor-diviner, which is the purifying remedy par excellence). The whole mixture is placed on the fire to cook in the way of ordinary mush (‘bwali’). When it is ready, they both pick up one mouthful of it and eat it. They stay shut in the house the whole of the following day, without fire, without the possibility of cooking food. They are brought meals from outside, and whatever remnants there is, it is thrown into the bush as impure. On the following morning, after this day of complete seclusion, they shave themselves and rub special oil all over their bodies (‘mafuta yacengela’), which they obtained from the village headman. They come out of the house and sit in front on a mat and stool. The people of the village come to greet them, to give them advice, to make recommendations to them, and to offer them presents. This is a simple repetition of the ceremony of the ‘mashikulo’ on the wedding day.

q        This woman who did the ‘kupyana’ has now taken the place of her dead relative. She has stepped into her relative’s personality, as it were, she takes her name and her functions. She receives the belt of beads (mushingo’) of the dead wife. If the widower is fond of her, he will normally asks her to marry him as a logical consequence of the ‘bupyani’. It will usually be the case if the dead wife’s clan was declared responsible of her death by the ritual hunt, and the husband’s clan is claiming for compensation. 





q        It may happen that the dead wife’s clan does not dispose of an unmarried woman for the ‘bupyani’. They must provide a married woman who is not free to step into the succession of her dead relative. In this case they have recourse to all sorts of expedients to follow the custom. The task of appointing this married woman is entrusted to the elderly members of the clan, who discuss the matter very thoroughly from every angle. The woman they choose is called in Cibemba ‘cishishi = firebrand, and that is very suggestive: a firebrand is temporarily removed from the fire to alight something else - to light a pipe, for example – and then thrown back onto the fireplace. In the same way this married woman is temporarily taken away from her home and assigned to another man, a relative of hers by marriage, to carry out one precise task: to burn the last vestiges of death in his personality and free him from all taboos. Then she will be able to return to her own family.

q         It goes without saying that this must be done unbeknownst to her husband. The woman will come to the widower’s village under the pretext of paying a social visit to people around and will have one sexual intercourse with him on the sly. The widower is now delivered from all remnants of death and freed from all taboos, but the two will not perform together the ritual ablutions that normally follow on conjugal relations. Instead they will both go into the bush separately and meet at a crossroads, if possible on the path that was followed by the funeral cortčge on the day of the burial. They bring along with them two fragments of pottery. One fragment is called ‘kalubi’ (small idol) for this particular occasion and represents the dead wife. The other takes the name of ‘cikota’ (the big female’) for the duration of the ceremony. Roots of ‘mubwilili’ and of ‘musambamfwa’ are crushed and placed in the shards and mixed with a pinch of ‘mufuba’, the ubiquitous purifier from the doctor-diviner. They light a new fire with sticks, and the shards with their contents are put on the fire. The woman is handling the shards used as vases, not the man: the latter simply lays a hand on the woman’s shoulder to keep a physical contact with her and share in the rite of purification. When the remedy is warm, the man takes a pinch of it and rubs his hands and the underneath of his feet. The woman takes a pinch and rubs her arms, her feet, her legs, and her face. The remedy is taken from the vase called ‘cikota’ (the big female), while the contents of the vase termed ‘kalubi (the small idol) is thrown on the path followed by the funeral cortčge. The purification is now completed, and both return to the village. They will keep silent about it, for the woman’s husband must never know about the part played by his wife in this ritual of ‘bupyani’.

q        .But the woman is still impure, for she had sexual intercourse with a man without performing the ritual ablutions with her ‘kanweno’. She is under many taboos, like the ‘tutema’, the ‘cilolela’ and others (see earlier an explanation of all those taboos). She must neutralise the harmful effects of those taboos without her husband being the wiser. For this purpose she digs out a root of ‘kokolwe’ (a common shrub in the bush) and at the moment she is penetrated by her husband, she scrapes the root with her nails. At the moment the two of them get hold of the ablution vase (‘kanweno’) to place it on the fire as part of the ritual purification, she drops the scraps of ‘kokolwe’ root into the ‘kanweno’ unobtrusively. Her purification from all taboos and contamination is now complete without anybody being the wiser (see earlier the explanation on ‘masho’).


2)      The surviving partner is the wife, who is now a widow:

The widow is under the same taboos as the widower, but the rituals of ‘bupyani’ are not as involved for a widow as they are for a widower. Still we must distinguish two cases:




q        If the clans appoint a married man to free a widow from the remnants of her dead husband’s personality still clinging to her in a mysterious way and recover them for his clan, there won’t be any need of hiding the fact from his wife, but his wife is nevertheless to be consulted and her consent sought for if all complications are to be avoided in the future. As a sign that she understands the situation and makes no objection to her husband being used for the ‘bupyani’, she hands over to him a pearl from her waist belt (the symbol of womanhood), and she will ask him to fix it on his wrist as a talisman..

q        At the moment the man will have sexual intercourse with the widow to free her from all vestiges of her former intimacy with her dead husband, he will place this pearl beside her belt on the bed. Then, the conjugal act duly and properly performed, the two of them proceed with the usual ritual purification as if they were husband and wife: they use her ‘kanweno’, get hold of it both together at the same time to put it on the fire and remove it from the fire, and wash their fingers. They drop some millet flour into the rest of the water to make a sort of mush, to which they add a pinch of ‘mufuba’, the ubiquitous purifier of the ‘shinghanga’ or doctor-diviner. They also scrape some of the dirt (‘ciko’) off the dead husband’s bow and drop it into the mush also. The two of them are the first to swallow a mouthful of this not very appetising mixture. If the dead man left children behind, they are called in at that moment and forced to eat a ball of this mush called ‘kakabe’.

q        This done, some castor-oil, called ‘mafuta yacengela’ for the occasion,  is poured into a vase, to which is added once more a pinch of ‘mufuba’ (purifier) and of ‘ciko’ (filth from the dead man’s bow), and some ‘nkula’ (red powder) This oil mixed with magic charms is used for anointing, first the man and the woman who were directly involved in the ceremony of bupyani, and then all the dead man’s  relatives around the village.

q        The absent relatives are not forgotten, for all the members of the clan must be informed of what took place, because all must be informed that the traditional prescriptions concerning ‘bupyani’ have been strictly adhered to. For this purpose some more mixture of caster-oil, ‘mufuba’, ‘ciko’, and ‘ nkula’ is prepared, to make small balls ready to be dispatched to the absent relatives wherever they are, even in the Copperbelt. Each absent relative is to receive his or her ball in due time with the following message: “So-and-so has succeeded to such-and-such. We are dispatching some ‘ciko’ to you so that you can proceed with the traditional anointing on your own person.” The absent relatives do anoint their foreheads and arms religiously as recommended and take note of the fact that the ceremony of succession was properly performed back home in the village. If they were to be deliberately kept in ignorance of this formality, the people in the Diaspora would keep a bitter and lasting grudge against their relatives in the village, which would surface later in a deeply resentful attitude at the occasion of family matters and conflicts.

q        The man and the woman who have performed the ceremony of ‘bupyani’ are shut in their hut for a full day. On the following day they are to proceed with the tradition of the ‘mashikulo’ like a young married couple. The dead man’s bow is handed over to the man who accepted to do the ‘kupyana’: the latter is now the true successor of the dead man, he is to take over his name, his place in the hierarchy and his functions. The widow he has freed from all vestiges of her former marriage is now available as a second wife to him if he chooses to. If he forfeits his rights over her, she becomes free to get married to whomever she likes.

q        The man who succeeded the dead husband through the traditional ‘kupyana’ retains over his children the same rights as the biological father had. They are not much in Bemba society, but they are there all the same.

q        When he is back in his own village, the man who performed the ‘kupyana’ returns to his complacent wife the pearl she had entrusted to him as a good luck charm. He will add a present as a sort of compensation for deserting her bed and showing interest in another woman, even if it is out of a sense of duty towards his clan (which is not his wife’s clan). Safety first, and peace in the house!

q        If the widow accepts to become second wife to the man who freed her from all dependency on her former husband through the ‘kupyana’, we are facing a case of traditional polygamy. The two wives are now expected to exchange their personal symbols of womanhood (‘kupeleshanya mishingo’) as a sign that they intend to live in good understanding and peace. For this purpose the new polygamist goes to one of his wives with the other wife’s belt, has sexual relations with her, places the two belts on the floor, and after the normal purification rite with her, he sprinkles the belt with water from the ‘kanweno’. Then he picks up both belts, makes his way to the house of the other wife and goes through the same procedure with her. This done, the two women, the wife by marriage and the wife by ‘bupyani’, exchange belts once and for all to show that they are of one mind and heart, and happy to share the same husband. After some time, if the two women have shown -proved to themselves – that they can live in peace and good understanding together, they will proceed with the ceremony of the exchange of the two fireplaces (‘kusansha mililo’’, as explained earlier in this essay).


(b)   THE MAN APPOINTED FOR THE ‘BUPYANI’ is not married


q        He is expected to go through all the steps of the ‘kupyana’ as explained above. If he is fond of the woman, he claims her as his wife without the slightest problem since he is unmarried and she is a widow

q        In this case there is no wedding ceremony and there is no dowry for him to pay. They simply come and live together as husband and wife. There won’t be any exchange of belts either, since the man is unmarried. In any case this man who was called to do the ‘kupyana’ becomes the successor of the dead husband, inherits his rank and functions, and his prerogatives, even if he does not invite the widow to come and live with him.

q        He becomes also the caretaker of the dead man’s family.